My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Luke the Drifter

Album Review: Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – ‘Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down’

Of Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down Marty Stuart says, “This record is the subtotal of a 40 year journey. It represents most everything I love about Country Music.” And that’s what Stuart has created, a historical document embodying the past while transporting it into the present.

Picking up where 2010’s Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions left off,Tear The Woodpile Down follows in Stuart’s tradition of marrying newly written originals with well-chosen covers and instrumentals. He once again displays his acute skill of writing music that sounds and feels decades old while his band, His Fabulous Superlatives, have never played with such heightened intensity.

The Superlatives proficiency as a tight unit, due to recording the album with Stuart in the same room, is perfectly displayed on the title track, a honky-tonk number distinctive for its muscular guitar, strong harmonies, and banjo work by the legendry Buck Trent. “Tear The Woodpile Down” is easily the coolest sounding song on the album; a convergence of honky-tonk meets country rock that never looses traditional sensibilities yet feels modernistic in execution.

But the track’s selling point is the memorably comedic lyric. “Tear The Woodpile Down” details the trouble a man finds himself in while on the town with a gal – a night in jail and time before an unsympathetic judge. The sense that it doesn’t take itself too seriously only adds to the overall enjoyment of the story.

Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives also cut loose on “Hollywood Boogie” the sole instrumental among the ten tracks. Like “Tear The Woodpile Down,” “Hollywood Boogie” is brawny in nature but acts as a showcase for the band’s playing prowess, most notably Harry Stinston’s mesmerizing drum work. It’s rare in modern music to find this talented a band and “Hollywood Boogie” is a wonderful showcase for the breadth of their abilities.

In keeping with Stuart’s finest work, the heart and soul of Nashville, Volume 1 comes when he celebrates the past, something he does for most of this project. A favorite of his for years, Dwayne Warwick’s “Sundown In Nashville” first appeared on his 2003 album Country Music with far more distracting instrumentation. This mix is much more tasteful, allowing the cautionary tale painting Music City as the land of broken dreams (“A Country Boy’s Hollywood”), to breathe and sink in with the listener.

Stuart also resurrects two country classics – Jerry Chestnut’s “Holding On To Nothin’” which Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton brought to #7 in 1968 and “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” A Hank Williams, Sr classic written as a Luke The Drifter poem.

“Holding On To Nothin’” succeeds because Stuart, a fan of the song from The Porter Wagoner Show, remains faithful to Wagoner and Parton’s record down to bringing in Trent to reprise his banjo work. Stuart’s version, though, has one key difference – he makes the guitar more prominent and in turn modernizes the overall feel of the song.

In contrast, “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” has had so many versions over the years; it’s hard to pick a definitive one. Doesn’t matter, though, as the inclusion of Hank III makes this essential listening, with his pure and raw vocal drawing me in. It’s my favorite song from Tear The Woodpile Down and one of the top album tracks of 2012 thus far because of his stunning guest vocal.

Another standout is “A Song of Sadness,” written by Stuart for Lorrie Carter Bennett (Anita Carter’s daughter and Mother Maybelle Carter’s granddaughter) to sing with him. Another smart choice on his part, her vocal adds extra flavor and creates beautiful contrast to his deeper vocal tones. But the framing of their voices against the backdrop of pedal steel is the real selling point. The mix is so effortless it feels like he has sung with her all is life.

The final resurrection comes in the form of a trucker’s anthem, a seemingly lost ideal in modern country music. “Truck Drivers Blues,” which contains the records only mention of Connie Smith, celebrates the truck driving lifestyle with radiant authenticity. Another fantastic catchy sing-a-long, it comes complete with a mandolin heavy arrangement that helps it stand out for more than just extremely clever lyrics alone.

Tear The Woodpile Down also includes three Stuart originals (“Matter Of Time,” “Going, Going Gone,” and “The Lonely Kind”) that bear trademark Nashville Sound ideals. “A Matter of Time” glides along with a gorgeous guitar riff that repeats throughout, “Going, Going, Gone” mixes pedal steel and electric guitar with an effortless lyric that slithers off the tongue, and “The Lonely Kind” has a moody vibe to distinguish itself from the pack; almost reminiscent of Gary Allan’s “Smoke Rings In The Dark” or classic Roy Orbison.

Overall, I’ve rarely heard a ten-track album this perfectly constructed in my more than fifteen years of listening to country music. While additional songs and a guest vocal by  Smith would’ve enhanced the listening experience, it’s hard to improve upon what Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have created here. To call Tear The Woodpile Down astonishing would be an understatement. It’s a record for the ages, essential listening for anyone with a love of country music.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

Haggard’s debut single was a cover of Bakersfield star Wynn Stewart’s ‘Sing A Sad Song’ which was released on independent West Coast label Tally. Although it crept into the top 20 on Billboard, Merle sounds as if he is trying too hard to copy Stewart vocally, breaking into an uncomfortable falsetto, and there is a very heavy handed string arrangement.

He followed that up with a song penned by another Bakersfield boy, Tommy Collins’s perky novelty story song ‘Sam Hill’, which is certainly memorable, but now sounds very dated, particularly the backing vocals, and it performed less well than its predecessor. On the flip side was the pained ballad ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’, which Haggard wrote with fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson. This is an excellent song, addressed to although the string section is overdone again.

The third and last single for Tally, the rueful ‘(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’, was the one which really kickstarted his career. The first of many genuine classics Haggard was to make hits, it is unusual in that it was not one of his own songs, but was written by fellow Californian Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn), to whom he had been introduced by Bonnie Owens. A Bakersfield bar room take on lost love, it was his first top 10 hit single and gave him the name of his backing band, the Strangers. Even though a competing version by the more established Roy Drusky may have cut into sales, it was a big enough success that it persuaded major label Capitol to buy out his Tally contract. Six Tally sides were packaged with newly recorded material in the same vein, produced by Ken Nelson, for Haggard’s debut album in 1965.

The malicious ‘I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can’ (a Haggard original) was his first single actually released on Capitol, although it failed to break into the top 40 on Billboard. It is an energetic, personality-infused response to “get even with womankind” by breaking the hearts of every girl he meets.

Typically, country albums in the 60s featured one or two singles, a lot of filler, and covers of other artists’ hits. Haggard was much more album-oriented, even at this early stage, writing five of the album’s dozen tracks, and there are other songs which could have been hit singles given the exposure.

I really like ‘Please Mr DJ’, a disconsolate plea for the radio to play a specific song for “someone who broke my heart today”. ‘If I Had Left It Up To You’ is another very good song with the protagonist regretting his earlier fighting for a doomed relationship, as if he had not done so,

It’d all be over now except the crying
I’d be used to spending all my nights alone

A couple of tracks are still filler, with overdone string-laden productions. The heartbreak ballad ‘You Don’t Even Try’ was written with Haggard’s friend (and Bonnie Owens’s then boyfriend) Fuzzy Owen, co-owner of Tally, while steel guitarist Ralph Mooney’s romantic and sophisticated sounding ‘Falling For You’ is not a patch on ‘Crazy Arms’.

A cover of Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is taken at a disconcertingly brisk, almost cheerful pace, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the set are rather better versions of another fine Liz Anderson song, the depressed ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’, and Jenny Lou Carson’s sad but pretty sounding lament for lost love ‘I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows’.

The West Coast based Academy of Country Music recognized this bright new star by naming him Best New Male Vocalist for 1965 and also gave him the Best Vocal Duo award for his duet album with Bonnie Owens. A year later he had advanced to the title of Best Male Vocalist. Haggard was definitely on the right track with his debut, but had not quite found his distinctive voice yet.

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Album Review: ‘Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings’

Hank Williams RevealedA year after the arrival of the Time-Life first box set of previously unreleased Hank Williams performances comes a second set. Like the first set, all the material comes from a series of pre-recorded performances Hank did for sponsor Mother’s Best in 1951, which were then broadcast ‘as live’. This edition, however, is different from its predecessor in several ways.

What isn’t different are the production values, which are outstanding. The remastered sound is amazing. The liner notes by Colin Escott are remarkably detailed, providing information about every song, and trying to untangle some of the more dubious copyright attributions. The booklet is ilustrated with some archive photographs of Hank and others associated with him. I particularly like a picture taken for Mother’s Best which has Hank and the Drifting Cowboys wielding a range of sacks of the company’s produce (flour and animal feed)alongside their instruments. There are also some reproductions of printed memorabilia, sheet music etc.

The first set included three CDs worth of material, but the contents were fairly cohesive, with the song selection concentrating on songs Hank never recorded commercially, including many covers of contemporary hits by other artists and some of the hymns and traditional songs he would have grown up listening to, interspersed with some of Hank’s own songs. It made for a great record to listen to on its own terms. This one is perhaps of more historical interest, and gives each of its three discs a specific and distinct identity.

The first disc, sub-titled ‘The Hits… Like Never Before’, has excellent live versions of a dozen of Hank’s big hits. The fact that several of these songs had been written and first recorded within a year or so of these performances reminds us just what an astonishing talent he was. All-time classics like ‘Cold Cold Heart’, ‘Lonesome Whistle’ (possibly better known as ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’, and ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)’ were all brand new songs in 1951, and others were not much older. The songs chosen here range from the intensely personal songs apparently inspired by his troubled relationship with wife Audrey like the aforementioned ‘Cold Cold Heart’ to more light hearted numbers on the same theme like ‘Move It On Over’ and ‘I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Living’ and less personal material like ‘Mansion On The Hill’. Most of the songs on this disc are Hank’s own compositions, with the exception of Leon Payne’s lovely ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me’. The tracks in this part of the box set are outstanding, and I will be returning to this disc repeatedly over the next few months.

Every Mother’s Best show closed with a sincerely delivered religious number, and Disc Two, entitled ‘Southern Harmony’, which takes its name from a 19th century hymnal, displays a selection of these. Most of these were hymns or Southern gospel songs, although one or two are Hank originals. The famously dissonant Audrey was present for one session, and duets with Hank on ‘Something Got A Hold Of Me’. It actually isn’t that bad, even though Audrey’s voice is higher than Hank’s in the mix, but on a box of this kind, it feels right that their work together should be acknowledged. Nevertheless, I’m relieved it was restricted to one song. She wasn’t around for the version included here of ‘Dear Brother’, which they had recorded togther in 1949, and the result is better for it. These songs were clearly very important to Hank, but they don’t stand out as much as the best of his secular material. I like ‘I Am Bound For The Promised Land’ the best of the hymns here, and ‘Jesus Died For Me is my favorite of Hank’s gospel songs. I also like the slow emotional story song of Judas and his ‘Thirty Pieces Of Silver’, which is set to the tune of teh ld folk song ‘On Top Of Old Smoky’, Hank’s version of which appeared on the first box set.

Disc Three is subtitled ‘Luke The Drifter’, and looks at Hank in his ‘Luke The Drifter’ persona, in which he delivered sentimental, religious and sometimes comic narrations and talking blues. Only a handful of the tracks here are actually Luke songs, of which my favorite is the wryly optimistic take on life’s disasters in ‘Everything’s Okay’. Hank covers T Texas Tyler’s hit narration ‘Deck Of Cards’, which is along much the same lines, but notwithstanding the title, this disc also includes a handful of more conventional songs which would not have fitted into either of the other two, but none of these is particularly memorable. A very playful version by the Drifting Cowboys of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ does stand out.

Each of the three discs also features one entire ‘Mother’s Best’ show, which really give a picture of what they were like. They were all fairly short, and followed the same formula. Every single show opened with ‘Lovesick Blues’, which during his lifetime was Hank’s monster hit, which everyone wanted to hear at every show. Then there was another secular song, an instrumental interlude or two from the Drifting Cowboys (all well-known tunes), and the spiritual number. The songs on these particular shows include ”Nobody’s Lonesome For Me’, ‘My Sweet Love Ain’t Around’, ‘I Dreamed About Mom Last Night’, and Hank’s best gospel song, ‘I I Saw The Light’. In between the songs there is some agreeable banter and (naturally) unashamed advertising of Mother’s Best products. The set actually ends with Hank singing the Mother’s Best theme tune and another commercial.

Although this set has been given the title ‘Revealed’, in some respects I feel that first volume was more revelatory because of the range of material covered. In addition, beacuse the shows were pre-recorded for subsequent broadcast, they don’t really give us a glimpse into Hank off duty. That said, the music is great, and this is a must-have for anyone really interested in the history of country music.

Grade: A-

More than one outlet

chrisgainesHank Williams recorded under the guise of Luke the Drifter in the early 1950s, Garth Brooks was Chris Gaines, and George Jones as a rockabilly singing duck.  These are just a few of the alter egos country music has created.  An alter ego is a second self – ‘the other I’.  So what drives a recording artist to create an entirely new persona to market themselves?

A young singer, just out of the marines, migrated from Missouri to California in the early 1950s and began recording under the name Terry Preston. Ferlin Husky had created the stage name because he thought his given name was too rural-sounding.  While he never had any success with the Preston alias, Husky would go on to create a comic foil in the form of Simon Crum.  Crum was even signed a separate contract and had several hits of his own.

Likewise, George Jones began his career in 1955 with a string of hits for the small Starday label.  After a move to Mercury in 1956, George began experiementing with a rockabilly sound (which was wildly popular at the time) as Thumper Jones.  And though he had no real hits to speak of as a rockabilly artist, this chapter is still a necessary footnote in George Jones’ catalog.  During his crazier, no-show years, Jones was also known to create characters for himself too.  Legend has it that he performed an entire show in the voice of a duck character that sounded a lot like Donald Duck.  Later, Jones referred to him as Dee-Doodle Duck.  The duck didn’t score any hits for Jones either.

Luke the Drifter was born as a stage name for Hank Williams to release gospel recordings without hurting his popularity on the honky tonk – and therefore mainstream – circuit of the time.  So it’s not as glamorous a tale as one would imagine. (Or as sad a southern heartbreaking tragedy, however you think the name should have evolved.) Unlike Husky, and even Jones at the time, Hank Williams was a giant figure in country music.  His legend was already in place and that gave him the creative leeway to create another side of himself to market to the fans.  This other side of Hank Williams, a soft-spoken singer recording mostly recitations and spiritual numbers, was in stark contrast to the tortured soul depicted in Hank’s country numbers.  As a defining figure in the genre, Williams was at liberty to present more of the other side of his character in this new man, Luke the Drifter.

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