My Kind of Country

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

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Classic Album Review — ‘The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits’

During the late 1960s-early 1970s, Columbia Records tried to mine their back catalog of songs by releasing two album sets with gatefold covers. These typically took three different directions:

A) Mixed artists compilations of singles, album tracks (often Columbia artists covering hits of artists on other labels).

B) Compilations of an artists’ miscellaneous older singles and album tracks into a two-album set. In some cases (The World of Ray Price comes to mind) the singles would represent remakes of the original hits recorded in stereo and often with slick ‘Nashville Sound’. In other cases (such as The World of Johnny Cash, The World of Lynn Anderson, The World of Tammy Wynette or The World of Flatt & Scruggs) the compilation consisted of album tracks from out of print albums with perhaps a few singles mixed in 1960. C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit

C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit in this category. One of these albums was The World of Johnny Horton, where Columbia had some material in the can which had light post-production applied to some tracks after Horton’s premature death in 1960.

The other album was The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits. 

Largely forgotten today, or remembered as the father of Carlene Carter, during the 1950s Carl Smith was a huge star, ranking behind only Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold and, Hank Snow among the stars of the 1950s. His songs were solidly country; however that was nothing revolutionary or pioneering about his sound as many of Carl’s hits could have fit comfortably on 1940s country playlists. Although his success fell off sharply after rock & roll hit, still he persevered long enough to roll up 93 chart hits by the time he retired in the mid-1970s.

Although Carl had a very good voice, there was too much east Tennessee in Carl’s voice for him to make the Jim Reeves/Eddy Arnold/Ray Price turn toward pop balladry and his voice was far too deeply masculine for him to record the effeminate sounds of rock & roll or doo wop. Still he continued to have a number of top twenty hits during the 1960s. Although Merle Haggard is given deserved credit for the western swing resurgence of the 1970s, Carl’s music had been turning toward western swing sounds during the latter 1960s.

With this album, many of Carl’s biggest hits were recast as western swing, with other songs given a more jazzy feel just short of western swing.

Here are the songs on the album with some comments on each:

“Hey Joe” was a 1953 hit for Carl, spending eight weeks at #1 in 1953. This recording has a definite swing arrangement.

“Back Up Buddy” reached #2 for Carl in 1954 

“She Called Me Baby” was a minor hit for Carl (#32 Billboard / #20 Record World) in 1965. The song was a cover of a Patsy Cline hit from 1962 and Charlie Rich would take the song to #1 in 1974. The arrangement on this version differs little from Carl’s 1965 recording with some extra horns being the main difference.

“Deep Water” would prove to be Carl’s biggest hit of the 1960s, reaching #6 on Record World and #10 on Billboard in 1967. Written by Fred Rose and recorded by Bob Wills (among others), this version differs little from Carl’s 1967 recording, with some extra horns being the main difference. 

“Foggy River” was the follow-up to “Deep Water” breaking into the top twenty. The arrangement is an up-tempo modern country arrangement minus the strings of the Nashville Sound. Kate Smith had a pop hit with the song in 1948.

“Pull My String And Wind Me Up” was a top twenty hit for Carl in 1970. I recall hearing this on the radio so I think that this was the jazzy version released as a single. 

“Heartbreak Avenue” was released as a single in1969. The song is a slow ballad and features a bluesy arrangement and vocal by Carl. 

“Good Deal Lucille” was a single released in 1969 that broke into the top twenty. The version on this album swings a little harder than the single release.   

“It’s All Right” was not released as a single but has a nice swing feel with some nice saxophone. 

“I Love You Because” was a #3 pop hit for Al Martino in 1963 and was recorded as an album track that same year by Jim Reeves (and was released as a posthumous Jim Reeves single in 1976). The song was written by blind country singer Leon Payne and reached #4 for Leon in 1949. Carl’s 1969 release reached #14 – the single was very similar to this recording. Basically, the steel guitar is the lead instrument for much of this track.   

“I Overlooked An Orchid” was an early recording for Carl Smith. Released in 1950, the song never charted but was a regional hit for Carl, and apparently sold quite well despite its lack of chart activity. The song would become a #1 hit for Mickey Gilley in 1974.   

‘Mister Moon” was Carl’s second hit from 1951, a song that reached #4 and spent 17 weeks on the charts. The song features standard country production but no strings or background singers.

“I Feel Like Cryin’” reached #7 in early 1956 as the B side of “You’re Free To Go” which topped out at #6. Again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“There She Goes” reached #3 for Carl in 1955 and spent 25 weeks on the charts. Jerry Wallace would have a pop hit with the song in 1961. Once again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” was Carl’s fourth chart hit for 1951 and his biggest ever hit reaching #1 for eight weeks and spending thirty-three weeks on the charts. This recording is a slow ballad with a jazzy, but not western swing, feel to it.   

“Loose Talk” was Carl’s last #1 single reaching the top in early 1955 and staying there for seven weeks during its thirty-two week chart run. The song would be a big hit for the duo of Buck Owens & Rose Maddox in 1961 and become a country standard. The song was written by Freddie Hart and verges on western swing in this version.

“Are You Teasing Me” is a cover of a Louvin Brothers song that reached #1 for Carl in 1952, his third consecutive #1 record. This version is given a jazzy arrangement. 

“Don’t Just Stand There” was the following up to “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” and it also spent eight weeks at #1, although it faded off the charts after only twenty-four weeks. I would describe this recording as solidly western swing. 

“If Teardrops Were Pennies” reached #8 for Carl in 1951, his third charted single of the year. Porter & Dolly would take the song to #3 in 1973. 

“I Betcha My Heart I Love You” dates back to Bob Wills, and while no one ever had a hit with the song, it was a staple of many country bands for years. Wanda Jackson had a nice recording of the song, but Carl’s rendition here really swings. Carl himself recorded the song in 1950 but without any chart action.

The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits remains one of my favorite albums, one that I pull out and play frequently. Over the years I have dubbed it onto cassette tapes and also made digital copies of the album. To my knowledge, it has only ever been released on vinyl.

Carl Smith is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and while his 1950s output has been adequately available his post-1950s output has been shamefully under-represented in the digital era.

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Introducing: The Malpass Brothers

And the winner of the 2018 CMA Entertainer of the Year is ….. The Malpass Brothers!

Well not really, but if the CMA had a shred of integrity left, the Malpass Brothers would have at least been nominated.  This is not a knock against this year’s winner Keith Urban, who is an excellent rock guitarist (with very little country in his playing) and a passable (but very overrated) vocalist with a decent sense of humor, but having seen both perform, Urban is miles (or kilometers) behind in the ability to entertain.

So who are the Malpass Brothers? According to their website:

As young boys, Christopher and Taylor Malpass soaked up the music of their granddad’s phonograph records. Christopher earned his first talent show trophy at age 7, and Taylor was playing mandolin by the time he was 10. Today, they promote the work and music of classic country artists they treasure while creating new music and making their own mark in the lineage of a rich American cultural heritage.

With sincerity, honesty and an utter ease on stage that belies their years, their smooth vocal blend and skillful musicianship layer infectiously into the deep respect they pay to legends who have paved the way. Add the funny, off-the-cuff quips between the two 20-something siblings, and the engaging concert becomes a magnetic time-traveling journey to when a calmer rhythm reigned supreme.

The Malpass Brothers toured with the late Don Helms, former steel guitarist for Hank Williams, have opened for music legend Merle Haggard on multiple tours and appeared on stages from the Shetland Islands to Ryman Auditorium to Merlefest. Gifted musicians and songwriters, the brothers have shared billing with artists including Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Marty Stuart, Doc Watson and more. The title cut video from their “Memory That Bad” album hit CMT Pure Country’s Top Ten.

The above quote gives but a small hint as to what the Malpass Brothers are all about. Although there are other young country traditionalists who are true to the traditions of real country music, most of them are faithful to the traditions of the country music of the 1970s and the new traditionalists movement that kicked off in 1986 and held sway for about 12-15 years. North Carolina natives Chris and Taylor Malpass are torch carriers for the sounds of the country music of the 1950s through 1975 with occasional rockabilly overtones, and a lot of humor in their performances. Chris normally sings lead and Taylor typically plays electric lead and mandolin

After spending about seven years opening for Merle Haggard, the Malpass Brothers started working the bluegrass festivals along with other more normal venues. Although there is nothing at all bluegrass about their music, there is an interesting dynamic at work in the world of bluegrass which is that while there is a schism (of sorts) between the traditionalist “true grass” advocates and more modernist “newgrass” fans, both groups love the music of traditional country artists such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn and the Louvin Brothers and it rare to find a group in either the truegrass or newgrass camps that does not include the music of the pre-1975 period in their repertoire.

From what I’ve written above, you may think that the Malpass Brothers are nothing more than a covers band, but in fact, their repertoire is a mixture of covers and originals written by the brothers. In fact, their most recent album Live At The Paramount Theatre (taken from a PBS Documentary), features six original tunes along with three Merle Haggard songs, Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got The Money I Got The Time”, Ernst Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You” and the Jimmie Rodgers classic from the 1930s (later covered by Crystal Gayle) “Miss The Mississippi and You”.

This album also includes a live performance of their CMT hit “Memory That Bad” which was written by Chris and Taylor Malpass.

For more information check their website: https://themalpassbrothers.com/

Meanwhile, I’ve stacked three of their CDs in my changer and will be listening to some real country music. I will see them again in February 2019

Below are some YouTube clips:

“Hoping That You’re Hoping:”

“Luther Played The Boogie:”

“Half A Mind:”

 

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale and Roland White

We interrupt this program to present an album that was recorded before ANY of the albums we’ve reviewed up to this point. Lost for many years, the masters for this album were recently recovered and are now released for your listening pleasure by the good folks at Yep Roc.

It has always been the case that musicians and singers have been quicker to recognize Lauderdale’s talents than record executives, radio programmers and the general public.

Lauderdale arrived in Nashville and started hanging around with Roland White, brother of the legendary guitarist Clarence White, and then (as now) one of the great mandolin players. Roland was (and is) an astute judge of talent and saw in Lauderdale an up and comer. White arranged to cut an album with Lauderdale in Earl Scruggs’ home studio with a band that included Marty Stuart on guitar, Gene Wooten on Dobro, Johnny Warren (of current Earls of Leicester fame) on fiddle, and of course White on mandolin. For reasons I will never understand the album was never released and presumed lost.

The album is comprised of two Lauderdale originals and ten songs from the folk and bluegrass canon.

The album opens with a Lauderdale original “Forgive & Forget” that has the sound of a burnished country classic. The song is taken at a medium fast tempo with fine fiddle and Dobro solos and that country harmony.

“Gold and Silver” comes from the pen of Shirley “Milo” Legate. I don’t know much about him, but it is a fine song that was originally recorded by George Jones. Legate also wrote some songs for Sonny James and placed bass for Sonny as part of his Southern Gentlemen.

“(Stone Must Be) the Walls Built Around Your Heart” is an old classic Don-Reno & Red Smiley composition on which Jim sings the verses and Roland joins in on the chorus.

Clyde Moody is largely forgotten now, but he was a fine singer and songwriter whose “Six White Horses” is a song that fits in the cracks between folk and bluegrass. Dobro dominates the arrangement on this bluesy song, but there is also a nice walking bass line in the song.

L-Mack penned “I Might Take You Back Again”, a mid-tempo song about a fellow contemplating taking his wayward love back.

Donovan Leitch (a/k/a “Donovan), a Scottish folk singer, was a major pop star in the US, UK and Australia with his greatest success in the UK. “Catch The Wind” was top five in the UK and Australia but just missed the top twenty in the US. While not his biggest hit, it is probably his most covered tune, covered by nearly every folk act and many country and pop acts. Even Flatt & Scruggs covered the song

In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty, I want to be
In the warm hold of your loving mind
To feel you all around me
And to take your hand, along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

“Don’t Laugh” was a classic brother-style duet originally performed by Rebe Gosdin & Rabe Perkins.
Gosdin wrote the song which is definitely part of the bluegrass canon. I’ve heard recordings by the County Gentlemen, the Louvin Brothers and J. D. Crowe and have heard other acts perform the song in live concert . Rebe may have been a distant relative of country great Vern Gosdin.

If I cry when I kiss you when we say goodbye
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh
If I say I’ve always loved you and I will til I die
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh

I could never find another there’s no use for me to try
I beg of you my darling, please don’t laugh if I cry
If I say I’ve always loved you and I will til I die
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh

“Regrets and Mistakes” is the other Lauderdale original on the album. The song is a slow ballad with Lauderdale singing lead and White singing an echo and harmony. The song is nothing special but it definitely is not out of place on this album.

It is rather difficult to categorize Shel Silverstein as a songwriter – he was all over the place. On “February Snow” Shel serves as a straight-ahead ballad writer. Bobby Bare recorded the song on an album.

“That’s What You Get) For Loving Me” was written by Gordon Lightfoot, and covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul & Mary, Waylon Jennings and Ian & Sylvia. In fact, it was Waylon’s first top ten single.

That’s what you get for lovin’ me
That’s what you get for lovin’ me
Ev’ry thing you had is gone
As you can see
That’s what you get for lovin’ me

I ain’t the kind to hang around
With any new love that I found
‘Cause movin’ is my stock in trade
I’m movin’ on
I won’t think of you when I’m gone

The album closes with a pair of Alton Delmore compositions “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”and “Nashville Blues”. The Delmore Brothers were perhaps the quintessential brother act. Roland and Jim do them proud .

My only criticism of the album is that I would like for Roland’s mandolin to have been a little more forward in the mix. Lauderdale mostly sings the leads, and while he is a good guitar player, I think he left the pickin’ to the ace musicians that Roland collected for the project – when you look at the names below, you’ll see that leaving the pickin’ to them could never be a mistake.

im Lauderdale – vocals
Roland White – vocals, mandolin
Stan Brown – banjo
Terry Smith – bass
Marty Stuart – guitar
Johnny Warren – fiddle
Gene Wooten – dobro

To me this album is a very solid A.

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘A Tribute To John D Loudermilk’

John D Loudermilk, a cousin of the legendary Louvin Brothers was a remarkable songwriter and artist in his own right, whose music crossed musical boundaries with eleements of country, rock and pop.
In March 2016 he was honoured by a star-studded tribute concert in Nashville, and selected performances from that occasion have now been released on CD/digital download and DVD. The concert is also set to be broadcast on PBS.

Opener ‘Everybody Knows’, performed by musician/singer/songwriter Harry Stinson, has a hypnotic 1950s pop-meets-Louvin Brothers feel. Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman delivers the teenage romance ‘Language Of Love’ in a sprightly 50s doowop pop style, also adopted by Lee Roy Parnell in a slightly bluesier fashion on ‘Mr Jones’. Another songwriter paying tribute is Bobby Braddock, who takes on ‘Break My Mind’ quite effectively, accompanied by his own piano. Norro Wilson is also pretty good on the novelty ‘The Great Snowman’.

Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver race through ‘Blue Train’, which works perfectly with a bluegrass arrangement. Southern rocker Jimmy Hall takes on ‘Bad News’ which again works well in this setting. Buddy Greene, mainly a Christian artist, sings the tongue in cheek story song ‘Big Daddy’s Alabama Bound’; his vocals are limited, but the arrangement is great. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers is passionate on the politically fuelled anthem to the Cherokee nation now restricted to the ‘Indian Reservation’.

Rodney Crowell also rocks it up on ‘Tobacco Road, possibly Loudermilk’s best known song; this is highly enjoyable and one of my favorite tracks. I was less impressed by his wife Claudia Church on the syncopated pop of ‘Sunglasses’.

John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band. Jorgenson (who helmed the whole affair) is known for his guitar playing rather than his singing, but his vocals are perfectly adequate on the rocker ‘Midnight Bus’. I very much enjoyed his Desert Rose Bandmate Herb Pederson on ‘It’s My Time’, very much in classic Desert Rose Band style. John Cowan soars on the life-affirming ‘I Wanna Live’.

Rosanne Cash is tender on the lovely ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, another highlight. Ricky Skaggs and the Whites team up on two songs. ‘Heaven Fell last Night’ is a lovely romantic ballad sung together by Ricky and wife Sharon, while Ricky takes the lead on the fun Stonewall Jackson hit ‘Waterloo’. I also enjoyed Becky Hobbs on the country hit ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’.

Emmylou Harris’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age, but she is well supported by the harmony vocals of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy on ‘Where Are They Gone’. 80s star Deborah Allen also sounds a little worse for wear on her song, the wistful ballad ‘Sad Movies’. Loudermilk’s son Mike doesn’t have much of a voice, but he does his best on a pleasant version of the catchy ‘Abilene’, and is backed by (his own?) delightful guitar work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae, an Americana/folk duo and rela-life married couple. Their version of the part spoken airline tragedy story song ‘Ebony Eyes’ is prettily harmonised although the individual voices are not that strong. Also new to me was Beth Hooker, who delivers a sultry blues version of Turn Me On’. Guests from further afield include Australian fingerpicking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel on an instrumental track.

This is a worthy tribute which reminds the listener of both the musical breadth and quality of Loudermilk’s oeuvre.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Runaway Train’

runaway-trainThis is Flatt Lonesome’s third album and each has been a slight improvement on the album before, a difficult task since the debut and second albums were indeed excellent. On my list of favorite albums of 2016, I had Runaway Train at number two on my list and I gave serious thought to placing it at #1.

Flatt Lonesome hails from Callahan Florida, a town just big enough to avoid jokes about the entering and leaving signs being on the same signpost. They have become huge favorites at the bluegrass festivals for the simplest of reasons – they sing well, are very proficient on their instruments, and select great songs to record. The group is essentially a family band with sisters Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson joining brother Buddy Robertson in handling most of the vocals. Kelli plays mandolin, Charli plays fiddle and Buddy plays guitar. Paul Harrigill, who entered the family by marrying Kelsi, plays banjo and other instruments as needed. Non-family members Michael Stockton (dobro & lap steel) and Dominick Illingworth (bass) round out the team.

The album opens with a tune written by Danny Roberts (of the Grascals) and Paul Harrigill titled “You’ll Pay”. Buddy takes the lead vocals with his sisters adding harmony vocals on this song about retribution.

Next up is “Still Feeling Blue”, a song by Gram Parsons, a would-be country artist of the 1960s. Kelli takes the lead vocals with her siblings providing the harmony vocals. Parsons was greatly influenced by the Louvin Brothers and it definitely shows on this composition. This really is a good song and the trio vocal work just shines on this song.

Time can pass and time can heal
But it don’t ever pass the way I feel
You went away a long time ago
And why you left I never knew
The lonely days and lonely nights
Guess the world knows I ain’t feelin’ right
And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow
And now I’m still feeling blue

Dwight Yoakam would seem to be an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover, but “You’re The One” really is a great vehicle for Charli’s lead vocals and the harmony trios. This song, a slow ballad, was a huge hit on bluegrass radio.

Kelsi penned “In The Heat of The Fire” and takes the lead vocals on a fine religiously themed mid-temp ballad. Michael Stockton takes a nice dobro break and Charli does likewise on a fiddle break.

If you’re like Jonah
In the belly of the whale
Running so far
And headed for hell
Cry out to him
He’ll hear your voice
And answer your prayer

He’s in the valley
He’s in the storm
He’ll be your shelter
He’ll keep you warm
He is your solid rock
In the midst of the mire
You can still hear his voice
In the heat of the fire

The Bluegrass Cardinals wrote and recorded many fine songs during their two plus decade run. “Don’t Come Running” by the father and son team of Don and Dave Parmley is just one of the many fine songs, Buddy takes the lead on this song.

Well you tell me today you were going far away
You tell me you wanna be free
But if your new friend breaks your heart in the end
Don’t you come running back to me

Oh my darling go and stay if you want it that way
You don’t love me and that is plain to see
If your new love turns you down, I won’t be hangin’ round
So don’t you come running back to me

Kelsi penned “In The Morning”, a nice religious ballad. This time sister Charli takes the lead vocals.

“Road To Nottingham” is an instrumental written by Paul Harrigill and Brayden McMahon. The song gives the entire band an opportunity to shine.

Dolton Robertson II is the father of Charli, Kelsi and Buddy but it turns out that he is a pretty good songwriter as “New Lease On Life” attests. Charli sings the lead vocal and Kelsi takes the harmony vocals.

“Casting All Your Care On Him” was a husband and wife collaboration between Paul and Kelsi, with Kelsi taking the lead vocals and her siblings taking the harmony on this up-tempo religious song.

When I first heard “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” on XM Radio I was floored that a group this young could unearth an old Tommy Collins-Merle Haggard classic from the mid 60s. The song first saw the light of day in 1966 on Collins’ first Columbia album The Dynamic Tommy Collins. Haggard recorded the song in 1967 on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album. It probably isn’t fair to compare Buddy Robertson to either Collins or Haggard, I would say that he acquits himself well, and manages to imbue the spirit of Tommy Collins into his vocals. It should be noted that both Collins and Haggard used the title “Poor Broke Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

Paul & Kelsi collaborated on “Letting Go”, a downer of a song that asks if love ever really existed.

The album closes with “Runaway Train”, written by Australian artist Kasey Chambers . This song isn’t even remotely a bluegrass song, but is the mark of a group’s excellence that they can take left field material such as this and make it fit in the context of a bluegrass album.

I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take ya where your heart won’t break ya
And the water tastes like wine
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line

We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we’ll live off honey
When the train goes underground
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round

Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, the first of many such awards that will be forthcoming for this talented group. In terms of trio harmony, they have few peers. This is a group will continue to grow in stature. I can hardly wait for their next album.

Album review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own’

til-i-can-make-it-on-my-ownTil I Can Make It On My Own was Tammy Wynette’s fifteenth studio album since 1967, and represents a brief renaissance in album success, reaching #3 after her two previous albums failed to crack the top twenty of Billboard’s Country Albums chart. Her next album You and Me would reach #4, making it the last Tammy Wynette album to crack the top ten.

The album opens with the title track, which would prove to be her penultimate #1 country single, co-written by Tammy with George Richey and Billy Sherrill. Tammy often indicated that this was her favorite song of the many songs she recorded. The song depicts the vulnerability that Tammy excelled in conveying.

I’ll need time,
To get you off my mind.
And I may sometimes bother you;
Try to be in touch with you.
Even ask too much of you from time to time.

Now and then,
Lord you know I’ll need a friend.
‘Til I get used to losing you,
Let me keep on using you.
‘Til I can make it on my own.

“Just In Case” is a slow ballad given the full country cocktail treatment. The song makes a nice album track but had no potential as a single. The song is about a breakup in which the protagonist offers herself as a fallback position:

It’s over I know you’re going away
If you can’t stay I don’t want you to
I won’t miss you, no I don’t care where you go
But let me know just in case I do

I’m glad you’ve got a friend here in town
And I hope he’ll be good to you
Don’t you worry
Now I won’t worry about you
Just in case I do

It’s good you’re gonna be happy
You’re right it’s the right thing to do
And you couldn’t really be happy
If you thought I still care for you.

Charley Pride had a #1 single on “She’s Just An Old Love Turned Memory” in early 1977. The song was written by John Schweers, a songwriter who provided several hits to Charley. Originally cut by Nick Nixon, Tammy heard Nixon’s track and covered it. Reportedly she was considering releasing the song as a single. Her version is good, but it seems to work better from the male perspective.

I phoned him today, an accidental mistake
And his name slipped out to some friend
Forgotten old feelin’s brand new today’
‘Cause I’m right back where I’ve always been

He’s just an old love turned memory
And now I seldom see him around
He’s just an old love turned memory
But he still turns my world upside down

“The World’s Most Broken Heart” is another slow ballad, again given the full country cocktail treatment. The first verse reminds one of the opening to “The Grand Tour” (a George Jones hit) but the song isn’t nearly as well crafted or interesting.

Step right this way, here’s our main attraction
Direct your eyes to the centre of the room
She walks, she talks, she cries real tears,
Now the show’s about to start
Now presenting, the world’s most broken heart

See her cry when she remembers that her love’s gone bad
Watch her body ache as she recalls all the sleepless nights she’s had
She’s the greatest wonder of the world’s and her soul’s been torn apart
Now presenting, the world’s most broken heart

“If I Could Only Win Your Love” is next up. The song is a Louvin Brothers classic written by Ira and Charlie Louvin. Emmylou Harris took the song to #4 in 1975 for her first top forty chart hit. I don’t believe that the Louvin Brothers ever issued the song as a single, but their recording remains the definitive version. Their version originally appeared on their 1958 album Country Love Ballads. Tammy’s version is very good although the lead electric and steel guitar arrangements seem more honky-tonk than I’m accustomed to hearing for this particular song.

If I could only win your love
I’d make the most of everything
I’d proudly wear your wedding ring
My heart would never stray one dream away
If I could only win your love
I’d give my all to make it live
You’ll never know how much I give
If I could only win your love

Next up is “The Heart”, another slow ballad. It is a nice song, but at this point the album is getting overrun with slow ballads.
“You Can Be Replaced” doesn’t vary the tempo or the generally downbeat feel of the album, being another breakup song. The narrator says the departing boyfriend can be replaced but not in the manner you’d think:

Somebody new is loving you
And your gonna go with her I know
But there’ll be no tears running down my face
Go on with her you can be replaced

Take back your ring and everything
Let’s both forget we even met
There is no love time can’t erase
The minute you’re go, you can be replaced

You can be replaced by lonely days
By sleepless nights and all the rest
I’ll miss you so but none the less
You can be replaced by loneliness
You can be replaced by loneliness

“Love Is Something Good For Everybody” starts out as a slow ballad but after the introduction, it picks up the tempo to mid-tempo. It’s not a classic song, but represents a welcome relief from an album full of rather sad songs.

Not to worry, the next track takes the listener back to the depths of despair with another breakup song with another slow song, given the full Sherrill treatment on “Where Some Good Love Has Been”:

There’s your ring, my ring on the table
Now they won’t ever hurt our hands again
Cause when the lights go out tonight, we won’t be together
So let’s take a good look where some good love has been

Your love and my love is almost over
And it won’t be long till memories begin
Only in our minds we’ll find the times we found each other
So let’s take a good look where some good love has been

The original vinyl version of the album closes with “Easy Come Easy Go”, a rather bland ballad that sounds like something the Carpenters might have recorded.

Love just walked on down the road
I guess it had to be
Wish he wouldn’t walk so slow
Too much time to see
All that love leaving me

It’s easy come and easy go
That’s all he knows
So much sunshine in his smile
For a while he made my love the song

Lord he’d sing to me
Oh, he’d cling to me
And I loved him so
Easy come and easy go

Many listeners consider this to be one of Tammy’s best albums, but I disagree, since the album is basically comprised on a string of slow sad ballads with little relief. I think that if Wynette and Sherrill had interspersed another one or two up-tempo songs (not necessarily happy songs) I would like the album much more. The songs are mostly good and the performances good to very good but the album adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Grade: C+

Album Review: The Cactus Blossoms – ‘You’re Dreaming’

youre dreamingThe Cactus Blossoms are Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, a pair of brothers from Minneapolis who discovered a deep love for the country music of the 1950s and formed their duo in2009. Their fresh, timeless music is something like a mixture of the Louvin Brothers and the Everlys. This album,their first for Red House records after a couple of self-releases, was recorded in live takes in Chicago with simple, stripped down arrangements allowing their sibling harmonies to take center stage. Oklahoma singer-songwriter J D McPherson (a Rounder artist also worth checking out) produces sympathetically.

Their material is mostly written by Jack Torrey, one of the brothers (he changed his stage name), who writes literate, poetic lyrics and delicate, pretty. melodies, which work petrfectly with the close sibling harmonies. The opening ‘Stoplight Kisses’, which was a single last year, is an engaging upbeat number remiscent of the Everly Brothers.

The title track is a dreamy ballad which is rather lovely. Equally sweet is the gently romantic ‘Queen Of Them All’. ‘Mississippi’ is mellow and atmospheric.

‘Clown Collector’ picks up the pace a bit, but while a solid tune, is the least effective track on a very good album.

There is another change of mood with the wailing hillbilly blues of ‘Change Your Ways Or Die’, which is one of my favourite tracks, and sounds like something Hank Williams might have written:

The buffalo was here to stay
Til a fool with a gun came and took him away
If you go too far you can’t come back
When the river changes so does the map

You’ve got to change your ways or die…

A sip of whiskey gets your toes wet
If you dive too deep you’ll get caught in a net
Love and fire burn to the core

Also downbeat lyrically, but more gentle in its sound, is ‘If I Can’t Win’. The very pretty ‘Adios Maria’ is a sad story song about love and loss remiscent of Marty Robbins.

Brother Page Burkum contributed one tune – the beautiful, languid love song ‘Powder Blue’. There is one cover thrown in, ‘No More Crying The Blues’, a rockabilly tune from 1959, written and originally recorded by Sun duo Alton & Jimmy. The song works well and offers a nice change of pace.

The album closes with the wistfully valedictory ‘Traveler’s Prayer’.

I strongly recommend this album to anyone who like their country music subtle.

Grade: A

The duo is touring in northern states this month, some dates supporting Kacey Musgraves.

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Country Shadows’

country shadowsHank Williams Jr continued to show artistic growth with the release of his seventh album in April 1967. The album’s title refers to the first song on the album, “Standing In The Shadows (of A Very Famous Man)”. The song reached #3 on Record World and was the first of Junior’s own compositions to become a hit. The lyrics encapsulate Junior’s dilemma completely:

I know that I’m not great
And some say I imitate
Anymore I don’t know
I’m just doing the best I can

After all I’m standing in the shadows
Of a very famous man

The second track, “Almost Nearly, But Not Quite Plumb” is an up-tempo novelty that has Hank sounding quite a bit like Jimmy Dean.

“Is It That Much Fun To Hurt Someone” is a Hank Jr. co-write that sounds more like something Ricky Nelson should have recorded in his teen idol days. It’s a nice song but not well suited to Hank’s voice
Track five of Side One is “I Can Take Anything” a Merle Kilgore-penned ballad; Merle would become very important in Hank’s career, but at this point in his career he was a third tier country artist who was better known as a songwriter. This slow ballad has the full Nashville Sound treatment.

Side One closes out with “Truck Drivin’ Man”, which is not the same song made famous by Terry Fell, Dave Dudley and others. This song is also known as “Ten Ton Load”:

Well, I pulled out of Georgia with a ten ton load
I’m headin’ down the cold stone that black topper road
Looked out the window at the sky up above
Sat back and I thought of the life that I love
Now you can give a banker a nice easy seat
And you can give the sailor all those sea that he meet
But when it comes to drive and just leave that of me
Cause I know in my heart it’s my destiny

I’ll never give up this truck driving life
For a son to call me daddy or a sweet loving wife
All you people have heard my story when I’m in my cab well I’m in my glory
Now it may be hard for some to understand
I was born and I’ll die the truck driving man
I was born and I’ll die the six wheeler man
I was born and I’ll die the truck driving man

Side Two opens with a killer version of the Jody Reynolds classic “Endless Sleep”. The song barely cracked the top fifty for Hank.

Ran in the water heart full of fear there in the breakers I saw her near
Reached for my darling held her to me stole her away from the angry sea
I looked at the sea and it seemed to say you took your baby from me away
My heart cried out she’s mine to keep I saved my baby from that endless sleep
Endless sleep, endless sleep, endless sleep

Next up is a track from John D Loudermilk (a first cousin to Ira & Charlie Louvin) titled “You’re Running My Life”. I’ve been married too long to comment on this song. This is followed by a Mitchell Torok composition “Pecos Jail” . Both songs are good album tracks but neither would have made a good single.

“In The First Place” is a bluesy ballad that is nothing more than album filler.

Hank Jr. had a hand in writing “I Went To All That Trouble For Nothing”. The song has a smart country blues arrangement somewhat reminiscent of the arrangement Jerry Kennedy devised for Tom T Hall. I would have liked this as a single.

He went to all that trouble for nothin’ I hear them say
It’s too bad that things turned out for him that way
You took my love and turned around and made me blue
I went to all that trouble for nothin’ for you
I turned my back on the girl I thought that she was mine
I gave up my friends and now it seems I’m givin’ up my mind
I did everything you wanted me to do I went to all that trouble for nothin’ for you

Side Two of the album closes with “Going Steady With The Blues”. The arrangement contains some brass and has the feel of a rock and roll ballad. I like the song but I’d like it better with a more bluesy arrangement.

Don’t think that I’ve been lonely because you left me
And broke my heart in two
I’ve got company, I’m going steady with the blues

Yes, every evening while you are dancing and you’re romancing
Oh well, I’m busy too
I’ve got company, I’m going steady with the blues

Very few of these tracks are available in any digital format. “Standing In The Shadows”, “Endless Sleep” and “In The First” place are on the MGM Living Proof Box: 1963-1975, and a few of the songs show up on YouTube. Hank is still finding his way with this album, but the Nashville Sound trappings are subdued and Hank is in good voice.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Glen Campbell – ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’

by the time i get to phoenix‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was the song which made Glen Campbell a star in 1967, thanks to a perfect combination of song, singer and arrangement. It is still an all-time, cross-genre classic, instantly recognisable and exceptionally good. A beautiful melody and wistful vocal are matched by a heavily orchestrated arrangement, which sweetens the record for pop consumption despite the bittersweet lyric, which tells of a man leaving his lover while she sleeps. Glen had already had a few minor country, and even more minor pop, hits, but this was the single which hurtled him into the bigtime, and deservedly so. It was a #2 country hit, and reached the top 20 AC and top 30 pop, although it doesn’t actually sound particularly country even by the standards of the Nashville Sound. It was in the contemporary pop and open categories that he won Grammies for the record (his earlier country single ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won the same year in the country category). Glen was mainly associated with country music professionally, but his work was often hard to categorise, and with a song this remarkable, one ceases to care. The song has enjoyed great staying power; by 1990 it had become the third most played song over the previous half-century, and is known internationally.

A second single, ‘Hey Little One’, was not so successful, but still made the top 20 on both country and AC charts. It was a cover of a Dorsey Burette pop hit from 1960, and it is capably sung by Glen but a little dull.

A cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s folk-rock/pop hit ‘Homeward Bound’ is nicely sung, but here the heavy orchestration (not dissimilar to that on ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’) inappropriately swamps a song about a ‘one man band’ folkie on his travels. A stripped down acoustic version would have been lovely.

Ernest Tubb’s ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ works better with the Glen Campbell-and-orchestra reworking. Glen’s passionate vocal is impressive (although it verges on going over the top towards the end), and completely reimagines the song from Tubb’s original hard country shuffle. Another effective altered interpretation arises with a relaxed loungy version of a lesser known Bob Wills tune, ‘I’ll Be Lucky Someday’.

Glen is more faithful to the original when he takes on ‘My Baby’s Gone’, a Hazel Houser song best known for the Louvin Brothers’ version. Glen’s version is very nice indeed, beautifully sung and interpreted, and while the arrangement has dated a bit, especially the backing vocals, it still sounds good. This is my favourite track here after ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’.

Bill Anderson’s ‘Bad Seed’ has more of a rock feel. Neither Glen nor Bill comes across as much of a rebel, but the song works pretty well, about a bad boy drifter who shows little regret about leaving his latest girl. ‘You’re Young And You’ll Forget’, written by Jerry Reed, is another leaving song portraying a rambling soul. ‘Cold December (In Your Heart)’ is a 60s pop ballad, written by Alex Hassilev of the contemporary folk group The Limeliters, and is pleasantly performed.

Glen co-wrote a couple of the tunes. The perkily upbeat ‘Back In The Race’ is enjoyable. The closing ‘Love Is A Lonesome River’ is a melodic lost love number.

This is a very good album, but certainly not a traditional country one. It mixes country, folk, rock and sophisticated pop/AC sounds even handedly, and helped to set the template for Glen Campbell as an artist.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Don Henley – ‘Cass County’

cass countyI was more than prepared to dislike this album. I haven’t liked Henley’s previous solo endeavors, nor the efforts of his band mates such as Glenn Frey, and I never liked Henley’s band the Eagles. Nevertheless, the song titles on the album intrigued me so I agreed to review the album.

Over the years many outsiders have attempted to enter the country music genre in an effort to revitalize flagging careers. There have been some outsiders who proved to have bona fide country credential, most notably Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chris Hillman and Vince Gill.

Most, however are imposters peddling a brand of faux country (Jessica Simpson and Bret Michaels come to mind. Imagine my surprise, when I listened to this album and found that I enjoyed it as much as the new George Strait and Clint Black albums. While I wouldn’t describe this as 100% country, I would call it 100% very good!

Yes, Henley has brought in a bunch of country superstars to assist him in this endeavor, but they really were not needed, not that I don’t appreciated the talents of Miranda Lambert , Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Allison Krauss.

Cass County opens up with Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose,” with Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger joining Henley. While I don’t think Jagger adds anything positive to the mix, neither does he destroy it.

Next up is a Henley composition “Cost of Living”. Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard, a somber ballad about the price of living and the challenges of growing older. I really don’t know much about Henley but Haggard surely knows these lessons as well as anyone, and maybe more so.

“Take A Picture Of This” is an odd song about a couple looking back on the past. The twist on the song is that that by the song’s end the man realizes that he doesn’t really know his wife anymore and decides to leave her.

“Waiting Tables” tells the tale of a young girl who grew up in a timber town, got married too young and wound ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and hoping for a new love that will be more than a one night stand. This song is a nice example of songwriting craftsmanship.

The least country song on the album follows, the rockin’ blues number titled “No, Thank You” follows. The song advises the importance of viewing everything with a skeptical eye.

The pedal steel guitar dominates “Praying For Rain”, a song about drought stricken farmers hoping the rains will come soon. The stark realism of the song hits home.

“Words Can Break Your Heart” is slower and emotional. I regard the feel of the song as album filler, but if you listen closely to the lyrics, it is clearly more than that.

I haven’t anything from this album on the radio but it is my understanding that the first single from the album was “That Old Flame”. The song features Martina McBride in the role of an old flame wishing to make new acquaintance of a love from long ago. He wonders about her motives.

The album contains twelve songs with the deluxe edition containing sixteen songs and while I won’t comment on all of the remaining songs, I will comment on two songs that proved Henley’s bona fide credentials within the genre:

The Louvin Brothers were never massive sellers or hit makers but their influence ran both deep and wide. Dolly Parton joins Don on the Louvin’s “When I Stop Dreaming”. If this recording doesn’t stir your soul, just head for the morgue – you’re already dead and just hadn’t bothered to fall down.

The other song that Henley recorded that really interested me was the lovely “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”. I think it is my favorite song on the album. Anyone who can dig out “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” has more than a passing familiarity with country music. I have the song on a late 60s Dillards album but I am not sure who else may have sung it, although I have heard the song performed at bluegrass festivals. I think this song is only on the deluxe edition of the album; if that’s the case spend the extra money – it’s worth it!

I give this album an A and hope Don Henley hangs around the genre a little longer.

Album Review: Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy – ‘The Nashville Acoustic Sessions’

nashville acoustic sessionsOne of Raul Malo lesser known recordings, yet perhaps my personal favourite, is the acoustic album he released in collaboration with three virtuoso musicians: Pat Flynn of New Grass Revival (on acoustic guitar and mandolin), dobro genius Rob Ickes and bassist Dave Pomeroy. Malo takes care of all the lead vocals, and despite the democratic equal billing, to all intents and purposes this works as a solo Raul Malo album – and the best he has made. It was released in 2004, just after the breakup of the Mavericks.

The record opens with a beautiful version of ‘Blue Bayou’, with Raul Malo’s vocal measured yet soaring to challenge the Orbison original.

Raul’s vocal on the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is exquisite, and for once one doesn’t miss the harmonies. He is joined by the harmonies of Flynn and Ickes in a committed take on the Louvins’ Cold War-inspired gospel song ‘The Great Atomic Power’.

An ethereally mournful wail is used for a haunting version of Hank Williams’s ‘Weary Blues From Waiting’. Jimmie Rodgers ‘Waiting For A Train’ is, a little disappointingly, relegated to an instrumental – perhaps to make the point that it isn’t technically a Malo album, but I would have liked to hear him sing this, although it goes without saying that it is beautifully played.

‘Hot Burrito #1’ (the Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers’ song in which the protagonist bemoans “I’m your toy”) has another stellar vocal and stripped down arrangement.

Gordon Lightfoot’s gentle folk-country ‘Early Morning Rain’ is delivered smoothly, while Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ is perky. Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ is strongly performed, with additional harmonies from R&B singer Siedah Garrett, but is one of the less memorable tracks.

Pop/Great American Songbook standards ‘Moon River’ and ‘I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)’ are beautifully sung, particularly the former.

This may not appeal to those Mavericks fans most drawn to the Latin party side of the band – but Raul Malo’s magnificent voice is showcased at its very best. I rather wish he had continued in this vein, but he had more eclectic paths in mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Brotherhood’

brotherhoodThere’s something very special about the harmonies created by two brothers. One of the best duos in modern bluegrass or country music consists of the Gibson Brothers, Leigh and Eric. in their latest release, they pay tribute to some of the great fraternal partnerships of the past, and the result is sublime.

Their version of the Everly Brothers’ big pop hit ‘Bye Bye Love’ is darker and more melancholy than the perky original, drawing on the implicit sadness of the Felice/Boudleaux Bryant lyric. Another Everlys cut, ‘Crying In The Rain’ showcases the pair’s compelling vocals on a tune written by iconic pop singer-songwriter Carole King.

The haunting ‘Long Time Gone’ (also once recorded by the Everlys) is another standout. The similarly titled but pacier ‘Long Gone’ comes from the same writer, Leslie York of the York Brothers, a sibling duo active in the 1940s and 50s.

‘The Sweetest Gift’, a beautiful story about a mother visiting a prisoner son, has been recorded by everyone from the Blue Sky Boys in the 40s to the Judds. The Gibson Brothers’ version is wonderful, imbued with the tenderness and desperation of the mother’s love for her “erring, but precious son”, and stands up against any of the previous versions, with an interesting arrangement of their harmonies. ‘Eastbound Train’ also deals with a prisoner’s loved one, and is a traditionally styled ballad telling the sweetly sentimental story of a little girl taking the train to seek a pardon for her father, who is not only in prison but also blind. The conductor is moved by her sad story and lets her travel for free.

Also very much in traditional vein, the Louvin Brothers’ melancholy ‘Seven Year Blues’ is outstanding.

‘I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled’ picks up the pace with a jaundiced lyric, while the perky ‘Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes’ brightens the mood. A tender ‘It’ll Be Her’ (a hit for Tompall and the Glaser Brothers) is gorgeous.

The Gibsons are joined by Ronnie Reno, a onetime member of the Osborne Brothers’ band, to sing ‘Each Season Changes You’, a pretty plaintive song popularised by the latter. Reno also helps out on the upbeat ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’.

‘I Have Found The Way’ is traditional bluegrass gospel, written by Bill Monroe’s brother Charlie and recorded by the Monroes in 1937,before Bill invented bluegrass as a discrete genre. Ronnie and Rob McCoury join the Gibsons on a sincere ‘What A Wonderful Savior Is He’. The lesser known ‘An Angel With Blue Eyes’ anticipates reunion in heaven with a loved one, an dis sung with commitment.

The combination of compelling harmonies and great songs, backed by tasteful bluegrass arrangements make this an essential putrchase.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Dierks Bentley and Harley Allen pay tribute to the Louvin Brothers – ‘I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby’

The best re-issues of 2014

pathway of my lifeAs is always the case, most of the best reissues of American Country Music come from Europe. There are several reasons for this:

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. I am not sure what the cut-off point is for application of the 70 year copyright as I’ve seen varying reports, but it appears that recordings already out of copyright protection will remain in the public domain, but recordings released after 1962 will have the longer copyrights applicable (at least in the UK).

2- The European customer for country music is more traditionally oriented than American audiences. This holds true for many forms of music including rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, pop standards, you name it. European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, have not discarded the past.

3- American Record labels simply don’t care – I’d elaborate, but there’s no point to it.

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2012 but became generally available during 2014 through various markets.

We’ll start off with two box sets from the gold standard of reissue labels, Bear Family:

1. HANK THOMPSON – THE PATHWAY OF MY LIFE (1966-1984)
Released in late 2013, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family extravaganza grabs Hank’s recordings made for Warner Brothers, Dot , ABC, Churchill and MCA/Dot in a Deluxe 8 CD set with a booklet compiled with the assistance of Hank himself.

Hank Thompson’s biggest hits were recorded during his years with Capitol, but he still had a large number of hits after that. More importantly, he still was making great recordings. Although there are other artists I prefer to Hank Thompson, I regard Hank Thompson and Doc Watson as the two most consistent country artists of all time – neither of them ever made a bad recording. Hank’s four biggest hits of the post-Capitol era were “On Tap, In The Can or In The Bottle” (#8) , “Smoky The Bar” (#5), “The Older The Violin the Sweeter The Music “ (#8) and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open” (10). They are all here along with six more top twenty hits and a bunch of other chart records.

If you wonder how significant Hank Thompson was just ask George Strait. Ol’ George made one of his few guest appearances (and probably his first such appearance) with Hank Thompson on a mid 1980s recording of “A Six Pack To Go”.

just between you and me2. PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON – JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME – 1967-1976
Porter & Dolly were roughly contemporaries of the teams Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty and George Jones & Tammy Wynette. I have always regarded Porter & Dolly as the best male-female duet pairing ever. Their hits were not quite as big as those of the other two duets, but consider this: Loretta, Conway, George and Tammy were all top-tier stars. At the time these recordings were made, Porter Wagoner was a journeyman country singer who had a major label contract, an over-the-top personality and a syndicated television show to cover the fact that his big hits were fairly few, although he had experienced a bit of a revival in 1964-1969. Meanwhile Dolly Parton was an up and comer with no major hit records until 1970.

What made the pairing so special was the chemistry they had between them. George & Tammy may have been married for a while, but that spark that made the most trivial of songs special for Porter & Dolly was missing (I always regarded George’s best duet partner as Melba Montgomery, and although they did not especially get along, I felt Tammy’s best duets were with David Houston)

Conway & Loretta had more chemistry than George & Tammy but were never as involved in being a duet as Porter & Dolly as both had ‘big star’ careers to maintain.

Porter and Dolly recorded a lot of songs, and they are all here: sad songs (“Jeanie’s Afraid of The Dark“, “Just Someone I Used To Know”), happy songs (“Lost Forever In Your Kiss”), totally ridiculous songs (“Her and The Car and The Mobile Home Were Gone”, “Run That By Me One More Time”) and a plethora of simply good country songs from songwriters as diverse as Jack Clement, Dave Kirby, Tom Paxton and dozens of others. Six CDs worth of the best harmonies ever recorded with lavish book and the superb sound engineering for which Bear Family is famous.

Next some American labels get into the act …

ronnie milsap -the rca albums collection3. RONNIE MILSAP – THE RCA ALBUMS COLLECTION
Charley Pride was one of early supporters and many subsequent singers have cited Ronnie Milsap as a primary influence, including Vince Gill and Hunter Hayes. Since Milsap is a musical chameleon who can cover the gamut from Cajun to R&B to stone cold country and classic pop, it figures that he would have influenced a wide range of artists. Ronnie rang up a staggering number of hits including 40 #1 records in his long career. This set , consisting of 21 CDs covering his RCA output is overkill, but for a performer as gifted as Ronnie Milsap perhaps the overkill can be justified.

4. ZAC BROWN BAND – GREATEST HITS SO FAR …
They may look like something from Duck Dynasty but these fellows have a lot of talent. Moreover, this is an honest hits collection – no previously unissued tracks, jut fourteen hit singles starting with their first #1 from 2008 in “Chicken Fried” and finishing with “Sweet Annie” from 2013. If you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, this is a ‘must-have’ (and if you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, shame on you).

back to the Europeans …

the louvin brothers - complete recorded works5. THE LOUVIN BROTHERS – COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS 1952-1962
This is one of those European sets consisting of six CDs (143 songs) encompassing the Louvins’ output on Capitol Records – generally available for $20.00 or less. I don’t know much about the label (Enlightenment), and their product comes with fairly bare bones packaging but it is the music that matters, and few acts ever mattered as much as Ira & Charlie Louvin. The digital sound is quite decent. The set encompasses twelve of the Louvins’ albums, several of which are primarily religious material. The set isn’t quite complete as there were a few singles which did not make it to an album until much later including “When I Stop Dreaming” and “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”.

6. GEORGE JONES SINGS HANK AND BOB
Hank Williams and Bob Wills were two of the country greats and George Jones paid tribute to them in three albums recorded in the late 1950s – early 1960s. Collected here on the Not Now label are the Mercury album George Jones Salutes Hank Williams and the United Artist albums George Jones Sings Bob Wills and My Favorites of Hank Williams. Supposedly, George wasn’t much of a Bob Wills fan, but you couldn’t prove it by me. If George felt he didn’t have much feel for western swing he must be judging by an impossibly high standard as this is great stuff. Every album should be like this: great music sung by a master singer.

My biggest complaint about this set is the sequencing – two CDs each with 12 Hank songs followed by six of Bob’s songs.

7. JOHNNY CASH – THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION
This collection, also on the Not Now label, is comprised of two CDs containing 38 songs. This is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a good value – the sound is good and the songs contained herein are beyond essential. This is where it all started for the man in black. IMHO, there is no such thing as too much Johnny Cash. There have been better collections of the Sun recordings, but this one is available now, and at a nice price.

8. CARL PERKINS – THE ROCKABILLY YEARS
This collection, on the One Day label, is comprised of two CDs containing 40 songs. As with the Cash collection above, this is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. No complaints about the material, the performances or the sound quality. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a must – just don’t step on my blue suede shoes in your haste to buy this set.

eddy arnold -the complete chart singles9. EDDY ARNOLD – THE COMPLETE CHART SINGLES (1945-1962)
In terms of the number of weeks his singles stayed at #1 (143 weeks according to Billboard) Eddy Arnold is the all-time country music leader, 33 weeks ahead of Webb Pierce and miles ahead of George Strait, Dolly Parton or anyone else. This three CD set collects 77 of Eddy’s chart hits through 1962 which means that it pulls up just short of Eddy’s mid 1960s revival that started with “What’s He Doing In My World” and “Make The World Go Away”. No matter – the 1940s material was better than anything Eddy contrived to record during the 1960s and the 1950s recordings, while not always the biggest hits , were usually fairly interesting as Eddy experimented with his sound and expanded his repertoire to include folk and pop material. I would consider the first to CDs to be absolutely essential and the third CD as very good. The folks at Acrobat released this fine collection and included a fine booklet to go with the set.

10. JOHNNY HORTON – NORTH TO ALASKA AND OTHER GREAT HITS (The Early Albums)
Johnny Horton (1925-1960) was one of Johnny Cash’s best friends (and fishing buddy) and had a brief period of time in which his material dominated the country charts and made serious inroads onto the pop charts. This set collects his earlier (and largely unsuccessful) recordings for Dot and his initial recordings for Columbia. Don’t let the ‘early albums’ description fool you – since Horton was killed in a car crash in 1960, there are no later albums except label creations.

The set contains two CDs and 60 songs including all of the Columbia hits including “The Battle of 1814” and “North To Alaska” – good stuff. This is on the Jasmine label – apparently briefly available in 2012 and now available again in the USA

I didn’t review any of the Gusto/Starday/King/ Cindy Lou recordings this time around but check out the Gusto website. Gusto has the habit a repackaging earlier albums into nice box sets – for instance a few years ago they combined three Mel Street albums into a 58 song boxed set. Another label to check on is Heart of Texas Records which has reissued old Capitol and Step One sets on artists such as Tony Booth and Curtis Potter.

A look back at 1989: Part 1 – George Jones

one woman manThe year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt were the biggest names to emerge in 1989, but there were others as well.

This is not to say that the old guard didn’t produce some excellent records that year, even if they were having difficulty getting playing time. I will look at three of the old guard whose records particularly appealed to me in 1989 starting with the acknowledged master of the genre, the one and only “King George” – Jones, that is.

GEORGE JONES – ONE WOMAN MAN (1989)

The decade of the 1980s was a good one for George Jones as he finally got himself clean and remained in good voice; however, Father Time waits for no one and as the 1990s approached George’s chart success was beginning to wane.

By 1989 when ONE WOMAN MAN was issued, George was 58 years old and beginning to struggle for airplay as he was crowded out by the vaunted “Class of 89”.

George Jones albums during the 1980s tended to follow the formula of three or four singles (some of which were covers of old country classics) plus some other songs – often some more covers of old country classics – and some top grade new material. Even though the hot young songwriters weren’t necessarily pitching their good stuff at him, he was still finding enough good material to make some great albums.

My favorite George Jones album of the 1980s was ONE WOMAN MAN. More so than any of his earlier albums in the decade, this album relied on older material.

“One Woman Man”, the first single off the album would prove to be George’s last top twenty single as a solo artist, peaking at #5, this after a run of five consecutive singles that had missed the top twenty. The song, written by Johnny Horton and Tillman Franks had reached #7 for Horton in 1956. I liked Horton’s version but there is a decided difference between a pretty good singer like Horton and a great singer like George Jones.

Track 2 on the album was a Louvin Brothers classic, “My Baby’s Gone. You really can’t beat the Louvins at their own material (although this song was written by Hazel Houser), but George does quite well with the song. The Louvins had that brotherly harmony going for them but the vocal harmony singers here are put to good use and the steel and fiddle are used effectively. My one criticism of the song is that it is taken at a slightly too fast tempo.

Track 3 is the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”, recorded previously by, among others, Ray Price, Ronnie Milsap, Jack Greene. The Greene version remains my favorite version, but Jones never did wrong by a good song.

Track 4 is “Burning Bridges” another old-timer, but this one originally by rock/pop star Jack Scott. Jack Scott’s version was excellent, as was that of Ray Price, but George takes a back seat to no one in being able to wring the pathos and emotion out of a song.

Track 5 is a novelty song, originally titled “Yabba-Dabba-Do” but changed to “The King Is Gone (and So Are You)” in order to avoid threatened copyright litigation (which the songwriter & publisher would likely have won, but at great expense). In the song, a man whose girl has left him, laments the fact by pulling the head of Elvis off a Jim Beam decanter, pouring it into a Flintstones jelly bean jar and drinking up, imagining conversations with Elvis Presley and Fred Flintstone in the process. He eventually comes to the realization that his girl was never coming back. The song wasn’t a big hit but in the hands of almost anyone else, it would have been a total flop – it seems that only George Jones and Hank Thompson could get away with recording novelties (some of them really ludicrous) and scoring hits with them. This was the second single off the album and it reached #31 on the charts. The track features some nice dobro or slide guitar.

George gets back to serious songs on Track 6 with “Radio Lover”. Thematically this song is very similar to Porter Wagoner’s “Cold Hard Facts of Life”, except that the protagonist is a radio disk jockey rather than a truck driver and the song has a less ominous set up than Porter’s classic. Our hero pre-tapes his show so he can spend his first wedding anniversary with his wife, walks in on her with her lover in bed with her and he dispatches with both of them – meanwhile his radio show is playing on her radio. This was the fourth single and it topped out at #62. Here in Central Florida the song seemed to get the radio airplay one would expect of a top ten single.

I know I heard someone else perform Track 7, “A Place In The Country” before George Jones wrap his vocal cords around it. This song is about a man who worked in the city for thirty years but whose dream was to retire to the country.

Track 8 was a Patsy Cline song, “Just Out of Reach”. It was not released as a single but was taken as the title track for Patsy’s third Decca album and became well known in the years following her death. While I prefer Patsy’s version, George has nothing for which to apologize here.

The album closes with some original material in “Writing On The Wall” (track 9) and “Pretty Little Lady from Beaumont, Texas” (track 10). In the hands of most other performers, these songs would be filler, but in the hands of George Jones they are decent songs . They also point out why George was turning to so much older material – he simply wasn’t being pitched the best new material.

“Writing On The Wall” was the third single taken from the album and it reached #31. The year before the song had reached #96 for Kenny Carr.

For his next album, 1990’s YOU OUGHTA HERE WITH ME, George reversed course and obtained a batch of new songs. None of them would become hits (and the two singles released from the album would not chart at all) but one of the songs, “Ol’ Red” would reach #14 for Blake Shelton in 2002.

YOU OUGHTA BE WITH ME marked the end of the line for George Jones with Epic. From here Jones would go to MCA for a few albums and then to MCA and various other labels, eventually settling into elder statesman status. George’s solo albums from here would be spottier affairs, but there would be a number of special projects involving guest artists that would keep his face in front of the public.

Still, his penultimate album for Epic was a fine effort well worth digging out to play, and I do, periodically. It would be in my top ten albums for 1989.

Album Review: The Crowe Brothers – ‘Forty Years Old’

forty years old

Straddling the boundaries between traditional country and bluegrass, the close sibling Louvin-style harmonies of Josh and Wayne Crowe are always worth hearing, especially as the duo have a penchant for picking great songs. Their latest album is no exception.

A number of country classics given bluegrass instrumentation include the opening ‘Lost Highway’, written by Leon Payne but best known from Hank Williams’ recording. the Crowe Brothers’ version is excellent. I also enjoyed ‘Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache’, which is suitably plaintive, with soaring fiddle. The romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow’ is also nicely done, while a bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Let Our Love Die’ is beautiful. The pleasantly philosophical ‘Someday My Ship Will Sail’ is less well known, but the Allen Reynolds tune has been recorded in the past by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.

‘I’ve Got The Moon On My Side’ was written by Tom T Hall and wife Dixie with Troy Engle. It has been released as a single for bluegrass radio. It has a perky feel as the protagonist takes comfort in the country moonlight while his ex lives it up in town. The quirky ‘Livin’ In A Mobile Home’ was written by country songwriters Rory Michael Bourke and Ronny Scaife. It celebrates a life on the road in a Winnebago, and is entertaining and memorable.

‘Green Fields Of Erin’ is about the Irish emigrant experience and the longing for home.

The more-or-less title track ‘You Turned Forty Years Old’ is an old man’s fond tribute as his beloved son reaches a landmark age, written by Steve Watts. A charming lullaby rhythm and melody make this very memorable as the protagonist reminisces about his boy’s childhood.

‘Where Will You Be’ is a gospel tune written by Wayne Crowe and delivered with good cheer. ‘Angel Mother’ is an old fashioned (in a good way) pure bluegrass tribute to a mother. The set closes with the rapid-paced ‘Two Feet On The Floor’, which is typical up-tempo bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Back Home Again’

Although Rhonda Vincent’s pursuit of a mainstream career resulted in only two albums, it took her away from the bluegrass scene for nearly a decade. With the major label phase of her career now over, Rhonda returned to the indies and began a decade-long association with the roots-based Rounder Records. The aptly named Back Home Again, released in January 2000 was her first project for the label. It was an exciting time in bluegrass, as the genre was enjoying somewhat of a commercial resurgence. Dolly Parton had released the first album of her bluegrass trilogy a few months earlier, and the following year the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack would be named Album of the Year by the CMA.

Back Home Again was produced by Rhonda with Ronnie Light. In addition to singing lead vocals, Rhonda also played guitar and mandolin on several tracks and was also joined by her brother Darrin who sang harmony. Many of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Glen Duncan on fiddle, also participated in the project.

Rhonda and Darrin’s vocals soar on the opening, banjo-led track “Lonesome Wind Blues”, a cover of a Bill Monroe classic. Equally good are their take on Jimmy Martin’s “Pretending I Don’t Care”, and “Out of Hand”, a cover of a Louvin Brothers song on which Rhonda and Darrin are joined by their father Johnny Vincent. “Passing of the Train” is an updated version of a song that Rhonda had included on her first mainstream album, Written In The Stars.

Like most of Rhonda’s albums, not everything on Back Home Again is strictly bluegrass; three contemporary country songs are given bluegrass arrangements, with stunning results. “When I Close My Eyes”, my favorite track on the album, is far superior to Kenny Chesney’s 1996 original and Rhonda’s take on “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” is equal to Patty Loveless’ 1993 recording. And after hearing Rhonda sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, it’s somewhat surprising that Dolly herself never did a bluegrass version of the song. I’d never thought of it as a bluegrass tune, but it works extremely well with an acoustic arrangement and soaring harmonies on the song’s chorus.

The album’s only misstep is “Little Angels”, a song sung from the point of view of a child sexual abuse survivor. The tune is pretty and it is well sung and played, but it all sounds a little too pleasant for a song about such a weighty and uncomfortable topic, and as such, it doesn’t quite work.

While it’s regrettable that Rhonda didn’t enjoy the commercial success she deserved in mainstream country, after listening to Back Home Again, one can’t help but think that perhaps things worked out for the best, as bluegrass is where she truly belongs. Some mainstream country fans are resistant to bluegrass, but there is much to like in this collection, so it’s well worth keeping an open mind and giving it a try.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Pieces Of The Sky’

Emmylou Harris’s debut for Reprise was an artistic masterpiece which stands up well today. Recorded in LA with Canadian producer Brian Ahern, who Emmylou was to marry a few years later, it brought in the influences of the California country-rock scene in which Emmylou had been immersed during her time with Gram Parsons, fusing them with some very traditional music. The musicians included Herb Pedersen (later a member of the Desert Rose Band) as the principal harmony singer, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon playing a variety of instruments, soon-to-be Hot Band members James Burton and Glen D Hardin, and Fayssoux Starling, wife of John Starling of the bluegrass group The Seldom Scene as the main female harmony voice. Emmylou herself played acoustic guitar on a number of tracks.

Her first country single was the beautiful lost love ballad ‘Too Far Gone’. Written by Billy Sherrill and given a delicate string arrangement reminiscent of his work with Tammy Wynette (who had also recorded the song), it failed to make any inroads for Emmylou despite an intense yet understated performance imbued with anguish. It was re-released in 1978 to promote the compilation Profile, and then reached #13.

Gram Parsons had introduced Emmylou to the music and perfect harmonies of the Louvin Brothers, and a sparkling reading of their ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ was her first big hit, peaking at #4 on Billboard. Pedersen plays banjo here as well as supplying perfect harmonies, making this a true classic recording which stands up to the original.

Emmylou herself wrote just one song, the exquisitely beautiful ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, reflecting on her grief for the death of Gram Parsons. With echoes of gospel in the lyrics and folk in the melody (supplied by co-writer Bill Danoff) and arrangement, Emmylou provides a worthy tribute to her mentor which exudes sorrow. Perhaps in another tribute to their work together, she also covered the Everly Brothers’ ‘Sleepless Nights’ (a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song most recently revived by Patty Loveless), which she had previously cut with Gram for their second album together, Grievous Angel, but which had been omitted from the final version.

It was still common practice in the 1970s for artists to cover recent hits. Emmylou picked Dolly Parton’s autobiographical ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ (a hit for her in 1971), and this tenderly sung version with its mainly acoustic backing and the angelic harmonies of Fayssoux Starling, is convincing even though her own background was far from the rural poverty which inspired the song. She also sounds beautiful if mournful on the Beatles’ ‘For No One’.

It wasn’t all delicate ballads. The good-tempered mid-tempo wailed drinking song ‘Bluebird Wine’ which opens the album is actually my least favorite track vocally, but gets things off to a sparkling start instrumentally. It is notable as the first ever cut for the then-unknown Rodney Crowell, who Emmylou was soon to ask to join the Hot Band. There are committed honky tonk numbers in a spunky cover of Merle Haggard’s broken hearted ‘Bottle Let Me Down’ with Leadon and Pedersen singing backing, although this doesn’t quite match up to the original. Emmylou also sang the definitive version of Shel Silverstein’s sympathetic (even triumphant) portrait of a faded honky tonk angel he calls the ‘Queen Of The Silver Dollar’ (previously recorded by Dr Hook and a hit for Dave & Sugar in 1976). Linda Ronstadt and Herb Pedersen sang harmony on Emmylou’s version.

Another future Hot Band Member, Ricky Skaggs, guests on fiddle on ‘Queen Of the Silver Dollar’, and fiddle and viola on ‘Before Believing’, a pretty acoustic ballad with a folky feel, written by Danny Flowers. Emmylou’s boyfriend at the time, Tom Guidera, plays bass on these two tracks. The latter provides the album title:

How would you feel if the world was falling apart all around you
Pieces of the sky falling on your neighbor’s yard but not on you

The album sold well, reaching #7 on the country albums chart, and was eventually certified hold. It has been rereleased on CD, both with the original track listing and in 2004 with two additional songs, ‘Hank And Lefty (Raised My Country Soul)’, which had been a minor hit for the African-American country singer Stoney Edwards a few years earlier, and ‘California Cottonfields’ (a Haggard album cut written by Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery)). Both are fine songs well performed by Emmylou, and it is well worth seeking out this version for those songs (or downloading them individually if you already have the album).

Grade: A

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Spotlight Artist: Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was not born to be a country singer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, daughter of an Air Force officer, she grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. She dropped out of college to pursue a career as a folk singer, inspired by the 60s revival of traditional folk music in America. After releasing one album, Gliding Bird (suppressed for years) and following the failure of her first marriage, her life took a defining turn when she met Gram Parsons in 1971 (recommended by Chris Hillman who had been impressed by Emmylou when he saw her in concert). Parsons, an alumnus of the seminal country-rock bands The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, introduced Emmylou to country music. Emmylou’s haunting harmonies added a touch of magic to Gram’s more shambolic vocals, and her vocal contributions to the two albums on which they collaborated, GP and Grievous Angel, were so significant to their sound that (although billed as solo Parsons records) they were really a duo act. Parsons, a self-destructive soul addicted to drugs and alcohol, died of an overdose in 1973, and, traumatic though this loss was, Emmylou was freed to pursue her own star.

She signed to the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise Records (a contract which was passed to Warner when the smaller label was closed), and began working with producer Brian Ahern, who she was to marry in 1977. Starting with 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris released a sequence of now-classic albums through the 70s, notable for their selection of material: country and bluegrass classics, rock covers, and new songs; for the extraordinary singing and harmony work; and for the superb musicianship mostly from her own Hot Band. Her work was critically acclaimed and also well received on country radio, with a string of hits including five #1s. She won her first Grammy in 1976 for her second album, Elite Hotel.

Emmylou’s live bands have been a large part of her success over the years. The legendary Hot Band in the 70s and 80s had a changing but always stellar lineup, starting with Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton(succeeded by the British born virtuoso Albert Lee, writer of ‘Country Boy’), pianist Glen D Hardin, steel player Hank De Vito, and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. One significant member was singer songwriter Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar for three years. When Crowell moved on to start his own solo career, he was replaced by the multiple instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who brought a bluegrass influence to the band before launching his own spectacular career in country music.

From 1979 onwards, Emmylou, always eclectic, began to experiment further, with the pure country Blue Kentucky Girl, the bluegrass Roses In The Snow, an acoustic Christmas album (Light Of The Stable), live recordings (Last Date), even the odd disco song on 1983’s more rock-influenced White Shoes. Her marriage to Ahern broke down, and in 1985 she released the underrated concept album The Ballad Of Sally Rose, with a storyline very loosely inspired by her early career with Gram Parsons, all of which she wrote with English-born songwriter Paul Kennerley, who also took over as her producer, and soon became husband #3 (the couple divorced in 1992). The record was a commercial failure, although one song, ‘Woman Walk The Line’, was later picked up by other artists (Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded it).

She had collaborated frequently on other artists’ records throughout her career (and brought them in to sing on her own), but in 1987 she combined with her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to record the acclaimed, and platinum selling, Trio, and she also recorded a solo country gospel record, Angel Band, produced by longtime Hot Band member Emory Gordy Jr, with Vince Gill singing harmony.

Notwithstanding the success of Trio, her solo star was waning by this point, and in 1991 Emmylou made another major change, replacing the Hot Band with a new acoustic group called the Nash Ramblers. Their musicianship was just as high quality, including Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and a young singer/guitarist then billed as Randy Stewart who was later to pursue a solo career as singer and songwriter Jon Randall, and is currently known by his full name, Jon Randall Stewart. This lineup gave Emmylou’s music a new impetus, and they recorded a Grammy winning live album at the Ryman (her last release on Warner Brothers). However, commercial success was still diminishing, and after the relative failure of 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer on Warners subsidiary Elektra, Emmylou made the most radical change yet in her music.

In 1995 she turned to rock producer Daniel Lanois to create the controversial Wrecking Ball. This album’s connections with country music are limited, but it brought Emmylou acclaim from outside the genre, and earned her a Contemporary Folk Grammy. Another new band, Spyboy, featured guitarist Buddy Miller. A live album, Live In Germany 2000, has just been released (I think in Germany) and showcases this period. She was to continue in the vein for the next few years, investing more in her own songwriting than she had done earlier in her career. 2008’s All I Intended To Be, her most recent album, reunited Emmylou with Brian Ahern, and combined elements of her more recent style with aspects of her classic work of the 70s. A new album (Hard Bargain) is due later this month on Nonesuch Records, another Warner Brothers subsidiary which has released Emmylou’s solo work since 2003. She will appear on the Letterman Show to promote it on April 27. Also hot off the presses, a new imported budget box set brings together five of her classic albums, all of which we plan to feature as part of our coverage.

Emmylou Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1980, and has won numerous Grammy’s. At her peak she was able to appeal to both country and non-country audiences without compromising her music, and she introduced new generations to artists like the Louvin Brothers. Even when I haven’t cared for some of her changes in direction, they were clearly rooted in her artistic vision rather than in the hunt for sales figures. During April we hope to share with you some of the highlights of the career of one of the most adventurous and significant artists in country music in the past 40 years.

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Help My Brother’

On what I believe is their tenth album, the bluegrass-singing brothers from rural New York state (Leigh and Eric) offer compelling tenor vocals with an edge and the kind of close harmonies only siblings can produce, fine songwriters with an ear for melody and the willingness to put the song at the center, and serve it sensitively with the right vocals and instrumentation for that particular song.

This album (their second for Compass Records) is produced by the brothers with their bass player Mike Barber. The excellent, and never overpowering, solid bluegrass backing comes mainly from the brothers’ band. Eric plays banjo and Leigh guitar, and the band is rounded out by Clayton Campbell’s fiddle (whose playing sings beautifully over the rhythmic instruments) and Joe Walsh’s mandolin, with Mike Witcher guesting on dobro on a couple of tracks. There is an interesting selection of material, just over half of it written by one or both of the brothers.

Leigh sings lead most frequently, but Eric sings lead on and wrote my favorite song, the wistful ‘Dixie’, asking Vegas era Elvis if he would go back to the innocent happiness of youth, “back before your hair was black, before they called you King”, and to the arms of his first sweetheart. It is immediately followed by the other song he wrote alone, the faintly Byrdsish ‘Frozen In Time’, which is less memorable musically, but has quite a quirky lyric about a quietly lonely man “living in the past”:

My clothes don’t fit the fashion of the day
That’s all right, nobody’s watching anyway

The vibrant title track, written by Leigh, is an idealistic declaration of changing one’s life to help others:

Call it compassion, call it charity
I call it living like living should be

Leigh duets with Claire Lynch on his own ‘Talk To Me’, a soothing song about a marriage in a little trouble due to lack of communication, but not beyond salvation, while Alison Brown takes over the banjo strings. My favorite of Leigh’s solo compositions is the closing track, the historical ‘Safe Passage’, about his ancestors, a Scots family who emigrate to Canada, whose son or grandson then fights in the American Civil War and settles on a farm in upstate New York. The story ends with the brothers themselves, having left the family farm for another kind of journey, for a life in music.

Leigh and Eric teamed up with Tim O’Brien to write the thoughtful and mature confessional of ‘Want vs Need’:

I want an encore, a standing ovation
A crowd that laughs at everything I say
I want a hit song that everybody’s singing
I just walk out to the mail to get my pay

But I just need my own song
One that I love singing
A simple song that takes me down the road

This reflection is inspired by a woman the protagonist has taken for granted, leaving, but overall the mood on this album is a fairly happy one. Even the extremely bleak lyric of ‘One Car Funeral’, which the pair wrote with Jon Weisberger about a man who has touched other’s lives so little he has no one to mourn his death, is married to a surprisingly cheery tune which keeps the mood upbeat. Perhaps this is the point: that this man has touched life so little that even the singer and musicians don’t care.

Alongside the new songs, there are several relatively obscure covers, my favorite of which is the O’Kanes’ country hit ‘Just Lovin’ You’ (#5 in 1987). There are also an enjoyable, slightly raucous take on Jim and Jesse’s ‘I’ll Love Nobody But You’, and a beautifully sung low key version of the religious song, ‘He Can Be Found’ (recorded by the Louvin Brothers on their classic Satan Is Real album).

Ricky Skaggs shares lead vocals and harmonies with the brothers on the new but very traditional sounding trio, ‘Working As We Rise’, which recalls the melody of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. I also really liked Chris Henry’s cheerful rambling song about ‘Walking West To Memphis’ to be reunited with a more sedate loved one, the kind who drinks lemonade rather than her lover’s choice of whiskey, but has a powerful enough attraction to drag him from his gambling ways, even if he has to walk all the way from Nashville.

This is a very good collection of material, sung and played beautifully, which grows with every listen.

Grade: A

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