My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Marty Stuart

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye

When the group here at My Kind of Country opted to focus on Irish country acts, I certainly was not displeased as I became quite familiar with the Irish version of American country music during my years living in London (1969-1971). Unfortunately, before the days of the internet, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the more contemporary Irish artists. For the most part, the Irish artists I recall are deceased, retired or else really old. Louisiana-born Robert Mizzell is the exception to that statement in that a friend of mine brought back three Robert Mizzell cassettes for me after a visit to the emerald island some years ago. Since I rarely listen to cassettes anymore, I had forgotten about them. I pulled them out, listened to them and decided to digitize them.

Robert Mizzell is indeed an exceptional singer, so I was looking forward to reviewing his newer material. I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye was released in December 2013; unfortunately, music purchased via digital download does not come with liner notes (or any other useful information for that matter), so while I suspect that a few of these songs may be original to Robert Mizzell, I recognize most of these songs as exquisitely performed covers.

The album opens up with “Louisiana Red Dirt Highway”, a 1990 solo endeavor by William Lee Golden. The song did not chart for WLG but it was a video hit, an excellent song and worthy of revival:

Pulled out the driveway
Passed an old tar paper shack
Standing at her mailbox
An old woman waves as I look back
I’m going to miss my family
And I’ll need all the letters that they’ll send
It’s going to be a long time before I travel doen this red dirt road again

Louisiana Red Dirt Highway
I’ve been down a million times
Where the tin barns and the pine trees
I’m going to take them with me in my mind
I’m gonna take them to the city
Where a man could make good money so they say
I’m already pretty lonesome and my tires ain’t even swung off all the clay

“Little White Line” is not the Shooter Jennings song of a few years ago but it is a well performed mid-tempo song of youthful indiscretion.

“The Colour Of Your Dreams” is a gentle ballad about the loss of a brother.

“Wham Bam!” was as featured as a Buck Owens duet with son Buddy Alan on the 1972 album Too Old To Cut The Mustard. The song is given the same up-tempo treatment that Buck gave it.

“Your Man” was a 2005 US hit for Josh Turner. While Mizzell’s voice is not as low pitched as Turner’s, he does have a nice resonant voice and does an outstanding job with the song.

Baby, lock the doors and turn the lights down low
Put some music on that’s soft and slow
Baby, we ain’t got no place to go
I hope you understand
I’ve been thinking ’bout this all day long
Never felt a feeling quite this strong
I can’t believe how much it turns me on
Just to be your man

Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart had a fine recording of “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ Anymore”. Mizzell keeps the buddy feel of the song with duet partner Chuck Owens

“Loving You Could Never Be Better” comes from the George Jones song bag, a #1 (Record World) hit for George in 1972. Doing George Jones material can be tricky – the shadow of the Possum tends to hang over the material, particularly when covering the more familiar material. This was not one of George’s more famous (or best remembered) songs so the shadow is lessened. Mizzell does a very good job on this song, which will undoubtedly be new to many listeners. George’s recording was given the full ‘Nashville Sound’, which is missing here.

Well here we are, again, tonight alone just us two
Where the lights are dim and true love is comin’ through
There’s no one else in this whole world as far as we’re concerned
We’ve built ourself a fire, so let it burn

When you look at me like you do right now I go to pieces
Because I know what’s on your mind, it’s just me
You’ve got that love-me-look in your eyes like you’ve had so many times and how
Loving you could never be better than it is right now

“I Love A Rainy Night” was a #1 pop and country smash for the smiling American of Irish descent, Eddie Rabbitt. Rabbitt, who died much too young at age 57, seems largely forgotten. While retaining the basic rocking rhythm of Rabbitt’s recording, the instrumentation is much more country.

Another George Jones classic “Wild Irish Rose” is next up. Whether the song is considered anti-war or is simply the story of a combat vet who returned as damaged goods, I will leave up to the listener to decide:

They sent him to Asia to fight in a war
He came back home crazy and asking, “What for?”
They had him committed oh, medals and all
To a mental hospital with rubber walls

They cut off the funding oh, they cut off the lights
He hit the street runnin’ that cold winter night
Now the streets are the only place he can call home
He seems, oh so lonely, but he’s never alone

“One More Last Chance” was a 1993 Vince Gill hit. Mizzell’s voice is pitched lower than Vince’s and it doesn’t seem to work as well on this song. Don’t get me wrong, Mizzell’s recording is quite decent but pales next to the original:

Give me just a one more last chance
Before you say we’re through
I know I drive you crazy baby
It’s the best that I can do
We’re just some good ol’ boys, a makin’ noise
I ain’t a runnin’ ’round on you
Give me just a one more last chance
Before you say we’re through

I never saw the film Brokeback Mountain, but my wife said she recognized “I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” from the movie so I looked it up and found that the song was written by Teddy Thompson. It’s is a nice ballad sung well by Robert Mizzell

“Sweet Home Louisiana” may be original material. The song is upbeat, up-tempo and has a definite Cajun feel complete with accordion. I really liked the song.

“Down On The Bayou” is another upbeat up-tempo Cajun-flavored song. This is not the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, but perhaps original material.

This album is excellent. I wish I knew the names of the musicians so I could give them proper credit. The musicianship is both real country and excellent. Robert Mizzell has a great voice and knows how to use it.

I look forward to hearing more from him.

A

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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets’

Although his first “outlaw” album, 11 Months and 29 Days didn’t exactly set the Billboard charts on fire, Johnny Paycheck and producer Billy Sherrill continued in a similar vein with his next album, the much more successful Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets, which marked the beginning of a commercial resurgence for Paycheck, albeit a brief one. The album spawned two hit singles, which carried him into the Top 10 for the first time since “Song and Dance Man” peaked at #8 four years earlier.

The first single was the title track, penned by Wayne Carson and Donn Tankersley, which finds the protagonist only too happy to reunite with an ex for clandestine meetings, despite the fact that she had jilted him for a richer suitor. The bouncy number landed at #7. The follow-up was the equally enjoyable “I’m The Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)”, which revisits the tried-and-true “Mama Tried” theme. The protagonist’s mother tried to “turn him on to Jesus” but he “turned on to the Devil’s ways” and by the end of the song he has been arrested for armed robbery. It peaked at #8. Both of these numbers are among Paycheck’s most memorable songs; it’s a little surprising that they didn’t chart a little higher.

This collection is considered one of Johnny Paycheck’s “outlaw” albums, although only one track , “Woman You Better Love Me” is what I would consider a true outlaw song in the sense that it sounds like something Waylon Jennings would have done. The rest, for the most part have an in-your-face attitude but I’d classify them more as honky-tonk than outlaw. One track — Bobby Braddock’s “I Did The Right Thing” is an outlier on the album in that it is a tender ballad that shows Johnny’s sensitive side as he laments ending an extramarital affair and returning to his wife. It is more conventional than the rest of the album, retaining some of the countrypolitan trappings of the day (strings, vocal choruses) for which Billy Sherrill was well known. The rest of the album, however, is more hardcore country and is certainly more traditional than anything Sherrill was doing with other male stars like Charlie Rich and George Jones during the 70s.

I particularly enjoyed Johnny’s take on “You’re Still On My Mind”, which had charted at #28 for George Jones in 1962 (an updated duet version with Marty Stuart was included on Jones’ 2008 album Burn Your Playhouse Down.) “Hank”, in which Johnny sings about those mansions on the hill that Hank Sr. sang about is also quite good. I’d have made this the album’s opening song instead of the fourth track, since it reads like a prequel to “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” — Johnny’s lost the girl of his dreams to a richer man, but she hasn’t yet come crawling back. Those are my two favorites, along with the two singles. All of the tracks are quite good, though if pressed I’d rank the slightly maudlin “I Did The Right Thing” as my least favorite.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, and for about the first half of the 70s, albums were of significantly less importance than singles in country music. By the latter half of the 70s, however, some artists were beginning to make more of an effort to create quality albums from start to finish, instead of just finding some filler to accompany a hit single or two. Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets seems to be a reflection of that change in attitude. It’s a surprisingly solid album and my only real beef with it is that it plays for a scant 28 minutes.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Oak Ridge Boys ft Marty Stuart – ‘Just A Little Talk With Jesus’

Classic Rewind: Marty Stuart – ‘Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long’

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Way Out West’

Way Out West, the new album by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is one of the more eclectic albums I’ve encountered in recent years. I’m not sure who the target audience is, or even if there is a target audience.

There are those who would assert that the West has as much of a claim to the origins of country music as does Bristol, Nashville and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly the cowboy heritage has made its way into the country persona, perhaps more so with the fashion than the music, but in any event Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Sons of The Pioneers are safely enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as is Bob Wills.

It is hard to know how to assess this collection of songs. There are vocal tracks and instrumental tracks, some tracks which are traditional sounding western ballads and at least two which seem almost psychedelic. The band flits between sounding like a good country band to having overtones of The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Don Rich, Grady Martin and more.

The album opens up with “Desert Prayer – Part 1” which sounds like some sort of chant with what sounds like sitar. This is followed up by “Mojave” an instrumental track that sounds like Nokie Edwards meets Duane Eddy.

The third track is “Lost On The Desert” is the story of an escaped robber who heads to the desert to reclaim the money he stole, tormented by the devil before he can find the money. I can mentally hear Marty Robbins singing this song, but I don’t think Marty Robbins ever recorded the song. Johnny Cash did, record the the Billy Mize-Dallas Frazier song, however, on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.

A burnin’ hot su,n a cryin’ for water, black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’, you’re lost on the desert to die
I had to give up and they took me to jail but I hid all the money I got
Way out on the desert where no one could get it and I left a mark at the spot
Then I got away and I ran for the desert the devil had taken control
I needed water but he said I’d make it near the money is a big waterhole
A burnin’ hot sun…

Just up ahead is where I left my mark or it may be to the left or the right
I’ve been runnin’ all day and they’ll catch up tomorrow, I’ve got to find it tonight
Then up jumped the devil and ran away laughin’, he drank all the waterholes dry
He moved my mark till I’m running in circles and lost on the desert to die
A burnin’ hot sun…
(Lost on the desert to die) lost on the desert to die (lost on the desert to die)

“Way Out West” is 5:42 long, and is a strange tale of the narrator having (or hallucinating) a number of experiences, while under the influence of pills. Somehow I mentally can hear Jefferson Airplane singing this song.

“El Fantasma Del Toro” sounds like Santo & Johnny are providing the music for this instrumental.

“Old Mexico” might be likened to “El Paso” in reverse, with the cowboy heading to Mexico where there isn’t a price on his head. There is some nice vocal trio work – this may be my favorite song on the album, and could have been a hit forty years ago, especially if Marty Robbins recorded it.

“Time Don’t Wait” is a good song, a little more rock than country, with a lyric that speaks the truth as we all know it.

“Quicksand” has a very martial sounding introduction before lapsing into a more standard rock sound.

“Air Mail Special” is the oldest song on the album, having been composed by Benny Goodman, James Mundy and Charlie Christian. For those not aware of the writers, Benny Goodman was probably the greatest jazz clarinetist ever and Charlie Christian was the first great electric guitar player. I assume that Mundy wrote the lyrics later since neither Goodman nor Christian were lyricists.

Left New York this morning early
Traveling south so wide and high
Sailing through the wide blue yonder
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Listen to the motors humming
She is streaking through the sky
Like a bird that’s flying homeward
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Over plains and high dark mountains
Over rivers deep and wide
Carrying mail to California
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Watch her circle for the landing
Hear her moan and cough and sigh
Now she’s coming down the runway
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly

Marty’s band is indeed superlative, and with “Torpedo” they are in their best Ventures mode. As far as I know the Ventures were strictly an instrumental group, and Torpedo is a fine instrumental.

“Please Don’t Say Goodbye” reminds me of something the Wagoneers might have recorded a couple of decades ago.

If you like the Flying Burrito Brothers “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” definitely fits that vibe. Marty does a fine job. I must admit that it is nice to hear a new truck driving song again – the subgenre has nearly disappeared.

“Desert Prayer – Part 2” is just an interlude.

I really liked “Wait For The Morning” which features really nice vocal harmonies with a song that is a slow western-styled ballad, although not especially western in its subject matter. Lovely steel guitar work closes out the song.

“Way Out West” (Reprise) closes out the album – the reprise is largely instrumental and sounds like something from one of the spaghetti western soundtracks.

Unfortunately I do not have the booklet for the songs on this album, so mostly I don’t know who wrote which songs, or what additional musicians played on the album besides the Fabulous Superlatives. Mike Campbell, former guitarist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, produced and achieved a remarkable panoply of sounds. The Fabulous Superlatives are superlative, and Marty is in good voice throughout. I wouldn’t especially cite this album as being particularly thematic – it’s more a collection of songs loosely based on western themes.

B+

Album Review: Joy White – ‘Between Midnight And Hindsight’

between-midnight-and-hindsightBilled simply as Joy White (she incorporated Lynn later), the redhead from Arkansas and Indiana had a sound as striking as her appearance. Signing to Columbia Records in 1992, no doubt the label had great hopes for her debut album, filled as it was with great songs and Joy’s distinctive vocals, by turns fierce and vulnerable, in a way which presages the mainstream music of the Dixie Chicks with Natalie Maines half a decade later. It is unsurprising that they even covered songs Joy did first. Paul Worley and Blake Chancey produced the set, and would go on to work with the Chicks.

Unfortunately country radio was not quite ready for Joy’s intensity, and none of the album’s three singles reached the top 40. First up was ‘Little Tears’, an up-tempo tune about defying the pain of heartbreak written by Michael Henderson and Mark Irwin.

‘True Confessions’, the closest Joy came to a hit single, peaked at #45. Written by Marty Stuart with hitmaker Kostas, it is a very good song given a compelling performance. Stuart has been quoted saying Joy’s voice “could make time stand still”, and she commits to a passionate tale of falling in love despite the man initially not being in it for the long run:

He only wanted my shoulder to cry on
He only wanted my love for a while
I was lookin’ for someone to rely on
I traced his heart from his smile

The stars were fallin’ in every direction
The moon was rockin’ back and forth in the sky
Modern day lovers with true confessions
Written in their eyes

The last single from this album, ‘Cold Day In July’, which was also recorded around this time by Suzy Bogguss, and was later a hit for the Dixie Chicks, was written by Richard Leigh, known for his songs for last month’s Spotlight Artist Crystal Gayle. A graceful subdued ballad about the shock of a breakup, Joy’s version shows her vulnerable side.

Another song which may be familiar is ‘Wherever You Are’, which Highway 101 had included on their Paul Worley produced Bing Bang Boom – an album on which in turn they had recorded a Joy White penned tune, ‘Big City Bound’.

Joy continues the assertive dealing-with-heartbreak up-tempo theme with songs like ‘Wishful Thinking’, written by the team of Michael Henderson and Wally Wilson. The same pair contributed the more positive ‘Let’s Talk About Love Again’, a catchy number which might have been a good choice for a radio single. ‘Hey Hey Mama’ has a rockabilly feel.

Slow and intense, ‘Those Shoes’ (written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson) is an excellent song addressed to the woman her ex left her for, and who has now shared the same fate:

I’ll bet you don’t know what went wrong
Why has your darling gone with her
You’re half wild
You wanna track him down
You think you can bring him round again
There’s nothing that you’d love more
Than to tear her in two
I know how close I came
Coming after you
Yes, I’ve walked in those shoes

I know where you’re headed
There’s still time to turn around
Don’t follow in my footsteps
Cause it’s a long way down
I’ve come back here tonight
To give you the news
You might think you’ve lost it all
But there’s a lot more you can lose

My favorite song, and the one whose lyrics provide the album title, is the beautifully constructed story song ‘Why Do I Feel So Good’, written by the great Bobby Braddock. It relates the tale of a young girl persuaded to marry the boring rich guy rather than her working class true love, and regretting every second:

Mom and Dad didn’t like her boyfriend
Cause working in a factory
Just wasn’t satisfactory
They said he’s too rough and a little too wild
They knew all the reasons she should leave him
She just smiled

“If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?
Why am I walking on air
Dropping his name everywhere?
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?”

Now she lives in a 40 room mansion
With a man so boring
That Mom and Dad adore him
She lost in the big bed where she lies
And somewhere between midnight and hindsight she cries

“If he’s so good
Why do I feel so bad?
Why am I chilled to the bone
Wishing I’d never left home
And if I should feel so good
Why do I feel so bad?”

Then she runs home to Mama
And she cries to her Dad
“Why did you talk me out me out of
The only chance for happiness I ever had?

If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?
Why was I walking on air
And dropping his name everywhere
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?”

Joy wrote a couple of the songs herself, both ballads. ‘Bittersweet End’, a co-write with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride, is a reflective song about the aftermath of a relationship where “the taste of forever still lingers”. Some lovely fiddle augments it beautifully. The delicate ‘It’s Amazing’ is a gentle love song given a string arrangement to close out the set.

I was always sorry this album did not help Joy to break through. It is well worth checking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jeannie Seely – ‘Written In Song’

61wcxdrzxl-_ss500Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, best known for her 1966 hit “Don’t Touch Me”, enjoyed only moderate success as a recording artist, but many do not realize that she is also an accomplished songwriter. Written In Song, her latest collection, was released last month. It consists of 14 tracks, all of which were written or co-written by Seely. Twelve of the songs were previously recorded by other artists, while two were newly written for this project. None of them, however, had ever been recorded by Jeannie herself, until now.

In the 1960s, Monument Records had marketed Seely as “Miss Country Soul”, which was likely in part an acknowledgement that her initial success had occurred outside the realm of country music. “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”, the oldest song on this album had been a 1964 R&B hit for Irma Thomas. The other 13 selections are strictly country. At age 76, Seely’s voice is a little rough around the ages at times, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the album.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously familiar with any of the songs on this album. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” was a Top 10 hit for Faron Young in 1971 and had also been recorded by The Time Jumpers. Kenny and Tessa Sears, widower and daughter of the late Dawn Sears, join Jeannie on this track, which is one of the album’s standouts. Aside from that, none of the others seem to have been major hits that are well remembered today. I suspect that most of them were album cuts that were never released as singles. Nevertheless, they are all worthy of another listen. My favorite tracks are “Senses”, a co-write with Glen Campbell that features local harmonies by Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, “Sometimes I Do”, which had been recorded by Ernest Tubb, and “Enough to Lie”, which had been recorded by Ray Price. On a number that had been recorded by her old duet partner Jack Greene, Seely promises “You don’t need me, but you will.”

The album’s two new numbers allow Jeannie’s sense of humor to shine through. “Who Needs You” casts her in the role of a jilted lover, who is comforting herself with alcohol and shopping — standard operating procedure for a country song. Then comes the song’s final verse which discloses that she’s been enjoying a little marijuana as well. It’s hardly a shocking revelation in this day in age — and as Seely points out in her spoken disclaimer before starting the final verse, it’s legal now in many states — but it sure wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this album. The closing number is “We’re Still Hanging In There, Ain’t We Jessi”, which name drops the names of many famous women of country music — from Audrey Williams and Jan Howard to Tammy Wynette and Jessi Colter — who survived difficult relationships with some of country music’s famous men. Her own failed marriage to Hank Cochran is also referenced, all in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek manner. Jan Howard and Jessi Colter both lend their voices to the track.

Written In Song is a surprisingly fresh-sounding album. It’s mostly traditional country, with plenty of fiddle and some fine steel guitar work, but it manages to avoid sounding retro despite the fact that many of the songs are fifty or more years old. I’m sure that many listeners, like me, will be hearing these songs for the first time. If it is something you don’t want to spend money on, it is available on streaming services such as Amazon Unlimited and is worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Whole Lotta Miles (With A Million More To Go)’

maxresdefaultAs I began writing this review, I started thinking about the last time a real truck drivin’ anthem made a play at country radio. I had to go back twenty years for Sawyer Brown’s cover of the Dave Dudley classic “Six Days on the Road.” Before that, all I could think of was Alabama’s “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler).”

There used to be a time, long since in the rearview mirror, when mainstream country music cared about the working class, the blue collar folks who make their living keeping our country afloat each and every day. It’s hard to believe there used to be an era when paychecks and harsh realities outweighed the scantily clad country girls fulfilling the fantasies of horny teenage boys.

Marty Stuart is looking to resurrect the long-forgotten subgenre with “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go).” Who better to take on this challenge than a man who has had traditional country music coursing through his veins since birth? Stuart is the master, a fact he’s proven time and again in his career and has turned into an art form over the past ten years.

“Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” is a very good song and I have no doubt everyone brought his or her ‘A’ game to make this work. My problem is, I can’t get past the sound of this record at all. The wall-of-sound production drowns the song in loud twangy and steel guitars that could’ve been pleasant if they were turned downed in order to let the lyric, and Stuart’s vocal, breathe. There’s nothing wrong with the pacing or the melody, the song itself is just too damn loud.

It’s a shame, but then again, I do hold Stuart in a class of his own with expectations no normal human could ever reach. I’m still highly anticipating Way Out West, although my expectations have been slightly lowered after hearing “Whole Lotta Miles.”

Grade: B

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘A Man and His Guitar (Live From The Franklin Theater)’

travis-tritt-a-man-and-his-guitar-album-coverOne of the hallmarks of a great singer, as well as a great song, is the ability to strip away the slick production and studio wizardry, down to the bare bones: one voice and one instrument, without any loss of impact on the listener. It used to be taken for granted that most country music artists could do this, but in the age of music videos and autotune it’s become a dying art. Travis Tritt shows the younger generation how it’s done in his new live album, A Man and His Guitar, which was recorded over two nights in Franklin, Tennessee. The two disc set is being sold on CD and DVD exclusively through his website. The audio is also available for download through the usual online outlets (Amazon, iTunes, et al).

For the most part the album is like a greatest hits collection, with a few choice album cuts, and a few tributes to his musical influences, thrown in. Travis was never as traditional as most of his fellow Class of ’89 alumni, but his love and respect of country music have never been in doubt. While his real rockers like “Put Some Drive In Your Country” (which doesn’t appear here) wouldn’t translate well in an unplugged, it’s surprising how well others like “T-R-O-U-B-L-E’ do. It’s no surprise that the ballads — always his musical strength — work exceptionally well. “Help Me Hold On”, “Drift Off to Dream”, “Anymore”, and “Best of Intention (possibly my all-time favorite Travis Tritt song) are all represented here. So are mid- and uptempo numbers such as “It’ A Great Day to Be Alive”, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” and “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde”.

Singer-songwriter James Otto joins Travis on “Lord Have Mercy (On The Working Man)” and his good friend Marty Stuart shows up for “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” and an instrumental number called “Pickin’ At It”. There is a lot of banter, joking and reminiscing between the two old friends.

One of the biggest applause lines comes at the end of “Country Ain’t Country No More”, an underperforming single released in 2003 near the end of his chart reign. The song laments the loss of the country lifestyle and as it is winding up to a close, Tritt explains to the audience that there were some additional lyrics that were left off the studio version:

“You turn your radio on
And you wonder what for
‘Cause country ain’t country no more ….”

Amen, brother!

Tritt also spends a good bit of time paying homage to his musical heroes — Hank Williams, Jr (“The Pressure Is On”), Bobby Bare (“Five Hundred Miles Away From Home”), and Waylon Jennings (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”). He also does a very slowed-down version of “I Walk The Line”, which works surprisingly well as a ballad, but nothing can compare to Johnny Cash’s original version.

Travis’ voice sounds a little gravelly in spots but it hasn’t lost any of its power or its ability to touch the listener’s soul. This is a generous collection that plays for nearly two hours and there’s not a dull moment to be found. I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Porter & Dolly’

220px-PorterdollyalbumFive years after the release of Say Forever You’ll Be Mine, one final collaboration album surfaced from the pair. Porter and Dolly wasn’t a new studio album, although it was comprised of unreleased tracks from their heyday as a duo. The album came about after Wagoner won a court settlement stemming from his split from Parton, eleven years earlier.

At the time of this release, in June 1980, the pair weren’t speaking, so the two singles went without proper promotion. Unusual as it may have been, it didn’t make a difference. Lead single “Making Plans,” a simple piano drenched ballad written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison, shot to #2. “If You Go, I’ll Follow You,” written by the pair, hit #12.

The remainder of the ten-song album gave Parton four solo compositions. “Hide Me Away” and “Beneath The Sweet Magnolia Tree” feature production values opposite to their themes – the former, a love song, is creepy while the latter is much to jovial (although I enjoy the sunny banjo). “If You Say I Can” is a bit slicker and right on the money.

Parton’s final number, “Little David’s Harp” is another of her dead children songs, this time about a couple’s blind-from-birth son who played a magical golden harp. He would mysteriously die on Christmas Day, before reaching adolescence:

And then there was a storm on Christmas morning

And the snow brought such a chill little David, 7 now lays quiet

And still his hands reach out to touch his harp gently rested

The angels came for him that night and on the 7th year he rested

***

Little David’s playing now in God’s angel band

He’s gone home to Heaven now the way that it was planned

But on his birthday every year which falls on Christmas day

All through the house we hear the harp that little David played

Without much understanding of this era, I have to admit I don’t fully understand Parton’s affinity for writing these types of songs. She handles them delicately, and technically Wagoner does sing the dire verses, but I don’t quite get the appeal. The story of “Little David’s Harp” is good but it’s still as creepy as “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “The Party,” among others.

Wagoner only wrote two other songs. “There’s Singing On The Mountain” is a fabulous ditty about mountain heritage and close knit family. “Touching Memories,” with Nashville Sound era piano, is more of a standard and features a co-writing credit for Tom Pick.

The legendary Jerry Chesnut wrote “Daddy Did His Best,” a wonderful tribute to a hardworking father featuring a beautiful vocal from Parton. The final cut, “Someone Just Like You,” is an unremarkable ballad composed by Joe Hudgins.

Porter and Dolly marks the final recordings released by the duo, in Wagoner’s lifetime. In revisiting his astonishing final solo effort Wagonmaster, I can’t believe Marty Stuart didn’t succeed in getting one final duet between the pair on the album. She was at his bedside when he passed, so a final collaboration wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility.

But this album, which credits Wagoner as producer, is the last of their legacy. The album is notable for featuring 1980s overdubs on the recordings and Parton did reprise “Making Plans” seven years later on Trio.

Like the rest of the pair’s discography, this album can be found scattered about on Bear Family’s Just Between You and Me. Those particular recordings are the original versions and thus are scrubbed of the aforementioned overdubs. The album itself isn’t terribly remarkable although given its origins (even the album cover is a composite of two images spliced together) it feels in sync and not mailed in. For a compilation of recordings, that’s a noteworthy feat in and of itself.

Grade: B

Album Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘We Found It’

R-3955797-1350489082-3655.jpegWe Found It, the ninth duets album by Porter Wagoner hit store shelves in February 1973. The record, produced once again by Bob Ferguson for RCA Nashville, builds on Together Always by only featuring songs written by the duo. The project was one of their lower charting albums, peaking at #20.

Wagoner solely wrote six cuts on We Found It with varying degrees of quality. The title track, second-rate joyful fluff, was the project’s only single. “Love City” is inane, “I Am Always Waiting” is mediocre and “That’s When Love Will Mean The Most” comes closet to maintaining their classic qualities. “How Close They Must Be” is also good in comparison, with Parton turning in a strong vocal.

The final cut he wrote alone is “Satan’s River,” a waltz-y ballad in which Parton runs circles around him vocally. Wagoner gave the song a second life when he recorded it for the excellent Marty Stuart produced Wagonmaster, his final record, which saw release just four months before his death in October 2007. The lyric, unfortunately, isn’t among his finest work.

Parton had her hand in the album’s remaining songs. “Between Us” is a wonderful ballad about the promise of open discourse in rekindled love. “Love Have Mercy On Us” isn’t as strong, despite the drenching of steel guitar.

Parton’s final solely written track is the madding and mysterious “Sweet Rachel Ann.” Lyrically the song is a puzzle – Why did she go away? Where did she go? Why didn’t her parents ever visit her? When she returned, why was she so abused by the great big world? Parton, especially during this period, loved to throw songs on us that make little to no sense. Now, I’m sure there exists an origin story for this song somewhere, likely within Parton herself. But without necessary context, this song lacks purpose.

“I’ve Been Married (Just As Long As You Have)” is the only number the pair wrote together. The two verses are fabulous and I love the sing-song-y beat. But when the pair starts conversing back and fourth the recording becomes heavy-handed and forces the lyric’s thematic elements on us unnecessarily. If left a bit more barebones, this would’ve been an album highlight.

We Found It is a perfect example of cracks forming in Wagoner and Parton’s façade. This later recording is indeed a later recording – it’s just not up to the level of their classic work. The majority of these songs are either fluff or beneath them. There’s just nothing essential here to latch onto lyrically. Parton, meanwhile, is a vocal revelation and proves she’s quickly emerging as the main draw. I can see exactly why she went solo – Parton is showing how much she just doesn’t need him anymore. That’s about the only thing positive to come out of this mess of an album.

Grade: C

Album Review: Eric Church – ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

MisunderstoodThere’s a quote from Marty Stuart that says the most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is play actual country music. I’d go on to add that the second most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is to record and release an album of your own volition on a major label without any executives getting in your way.

For his fifth album, the spellbinding Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church was able to accomplish that second feat. In a handwritten letter published upon the album’s surprise release last November, he relayed a touching story about finding inspiration through a guitar his son had named late last summer and the music that poured out of it as a result. In a brisk 30 days, Church had recorded the ten tracks that would comprise the strongest mainstream country album of the decade thus far.

Mr. Misunderstood triumphs on the strength of Church’s willingness to mature as an artist and songwriter. He’s letting the music speak for itself, forgoing egotistical pretense, and highlighting Jay Joyce’s strength at elevating lyrical compositions without bombarding the audience with needless noise.

Nowhere is the pair more masterful then on “Knives of New Orleans,” the album’s blistering centerpiece. Written by Church, Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman, the song tells the tale of a fugitive wanted for a brutal murder he mercilessly committed without remorse:

Yeah, tonight, every man with a TV

Is seeing a man with my clothes and my face

In the last thirty minutes

I’ve gone from a person of interest

To a full-blown manhunt underway

 

I did what I did

I have no regrets

When you cross the line

You get what you get

 

Tonight, a bleeding memory

Is tomorrow’s guilty vein

Your auburn hair on a faraway sea wall

Screams across the Pontchartrain

I’m haunted by headlights

And a crescent city breeze

One wrong turn on Bourbon

Cuts like the knives of New Orleans

It’s far and away my favorite song on the project. I also equally adore Church’s solo-penned “Holdin’ My Own,” an unapologetic acoustic masterclass in introspection. In just under four minutes, he brilliantly traces his career trajectory and stands firm against anyone who wants a piece of him:

Always been a fighter scrapper and a clawer

Used up some luck in lawyers

Like Huck from Tom Sawyer jumped on my raft

And shoved off chasing my dreams

Reeling in big fishes

I had some hits a few big misses

I gave em hell and got a few stitches

And these days I show off my scars

 

With one arm around my baby

And one arm around my boys

A heart that’s still pretty crazy

And a head that hates the noise

If the world comes knockin

Tell em I’m not home

I’m finally holdin my own

 

I’ve burned up the fast lane

Dodging drugs and divorce

If I’m proof of anything

God sure loves troubadours

Sometimes late at night

I miss the smoke and neon

Sneak out of bed grab a six string

Play what’s still turnin me on

Like that tight old time rock n roll

Or that right down home country gold

I miss blues and soul

But not more than I miss being home

Also outstanding is “Three Year Old,” a tender ballad Church wrote about his son Boone with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell. It follows “Holdin’ My Own” in showing a more mellow side of Church, the man behind the sunglasses and electric guitars. The trio relies on personal observances to frame the story:

Use every crayon color that you’ve got

A fishing pole sinks faster than a tackle box

Nothing turns a day around like licking a mixing bowl

I learned that from a three year old

 

A garbage can is a damn good spot to hide truck keys

Why go inside when you can go behind a tree?

Walking barefoot through the mud will knock the rust right off your soul

I learned that from a three year old

 

You can be a cowboy on the moon

Dig to China with a spoon

Talk to Jesus on the phone

Say “I love you” all day long

And when you’re wrong, you should just say so

I learned that from a three year old

Church balances the self-examination with some primed-for-radio hits. “Round Here Buzz” is about the self-destruction after she’s left the hometown he’s hell-bent on staying in. He’s also without his woman on “Record Year,” but instead of turning to alcohol he’s drowned his sorrows in a ‘three-foot stack of vinyl.’

On his last tour, Church won raves for including artistic-driven Roots and Americana artists as his opening acts. The mutual admiration continues with Rhiannon Giddens joining Church for powerful background vocals on “Kill A Word,” a slice of social commentary about destroying words that aren’t good for our society. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a full-fledged duet with Susan Tedeschi that mixes blues and rock. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but it is very good.

I also have mixed emotions about “Mistress Named Music,” which Church also wrote with Beathard. The vibe of the track is very good, Church gives a powerful vocal performance and the use of organ wonderfully sets the tone for the moody ballad. I just don’t seem to go back to it that often. The same goes for “Chattanooga Lucy,” which I flat out don’t get. It’s easily the most esoteric track on the whole album. I don’t hate the title track, either, but it has grown repetitive on repeated listenings. That said, I fully stand behind the song’s message.

The only thing truly misunderstood about Church is the whole point of his musical journey over the past ten years. He hasn’t won any favors with country purists nor has he gone out of his way to please those put off by his egotism. But he has built a career on real music that bucks every trend. He stands out because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Church isn’t dumb nor is he a maniac. At the end of the day he’s an authentic artist releasing his own music. He’s getting massive airplay for songs that shouldn’t even be breaking through at all. He’s the last real country singer standing in mainstream Nashville. He may have an edge, but he can stand tall with the best of them. Mr. Misunderstood proves that in spades.

Grade: A

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Wynonna’

51xTAFnKBVLWynonna Judd’s solo debut was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 1992, as the music world waited to see what direction her post-Judds career would take. Released in March 1992 and produced by Tony Brown, Wynonna found the songstress straddling the fence between pop and country. Most of the uptempo numbers allowed her to show off her rockin’ side, but others weren’t too different from her work with The Judds. Production-wise, though, the album is more middle-of-the-road than anything she’d done prior, with very little country instrumentation. The steel guitar is noticeably absent, and nearly a quarter century after its release, it’s a little easier now to see this album for what it was: the initial step in Wynonna’s efforts to distance herself from country music.

That’s not to suggest that Wynonna is a bad album; quite the contrary. I’d have been very happy had she continued in this vein, and I expect she would have enjoyed a longer run at the top of the singles charts if she had. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable album and I still consider it to be the best in Wynonna’s solo discography. Wynonna’s solo career had been officially kicked off a few months earlier when she debuted the album’s lead single on the American Music Awards telecast. “She Is His Only Need” is an AC-leaning ballad penned by Dave Loggins. Sonically it’s not very country, but it does keep with country music’s tradition of telling a story. I often thought it could be construed as the further adventures of the couple from The Judds’ hit “Young Love (Strong Love)” from a few years earlier. I’m afraid I found the song rather bland and it’s my least favorite on the album. Pretty much everyone else disagreed with me, though, as it quickly became Wynonna’s first #1 solo hit.

“She Is His Only Need” was followed by two more #1s: the uptempo “I Saw The Light”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the rock-tinged “No One Else On Earth”, which is probably Wynonna’s most successful solo single and the one that got the most radio airplay as a recurrent. The fourth single is a beautiful ballad, “My Strongest Weakness”, which was written by Naomi Judd and Mike Reid. Had The Judds remained active, I could easily imagine this one on one of their albums, perhaps with some steel guitar to give it a more country feel. The song reached #4. I had totally forgotten that it had ever been a single; surprisingly, it didn’t have a very long shelf life once it fell off the charts.

By far, the best song on the album is “When I Reach The Place I’m Goin'”, written by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Joe Henry. This one features background vocals by Naomi, and is the most country-sounding song on the album. It’s slightly reminiscent of “Wayfaring Stranger” and is beautifully written and sung. It has a Gospel theme, as does Paul Kennerley’s “Live With Jesus”, which closes the album. The lyrics of It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye” aren’t overtly religious, but it has a definite Gospel feel.

There aren’t any bad songs on the album, though the opening track “What It Takes” and the Kostas-Marty Stuart number “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)” are pure album filler.

Wynonna accomplished its goals of establishing Wynonna Judd as a solo artist, distinct from her prior work with her mother, and it managed to do so without alienating any existing fans. Wynonna would make some unfortunate musical choices in the future, but on her first solo project, she knocked it out of the park.

Grade: A

The best reissues of 2015

As 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. What this means is that all recordings made before 1963 have lost their copyright protection in Europe.

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 2015 but became generally available during 2015 through various markets.

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

chuck wagon gang1. THE CHUCK WAGON GANG – THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1936-1955)

Released in late 2014, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family five disc set compiles the gospel recordings of Dad Carter’s family gospel group. Marty Stuart wrote the forward to the accompanying book.

This Carter Family is NOT related to the Carter Family clan associated with A.P., Sara, Mother Maybelle, and June Carter, but was a successful gospel group that was with Columbia Records from 1936 to 1975, selling thirty-nine million records in the process. Consisting of D.P. (Dad) Carter and son Jim (Ernest) and daughters Rose (Lola) and Anna (Effie), this group was formed in 1935 in Lubbock, Texas, and became one of the most popular gospel groups of its time, performing a very traditional form of country gospel music. They were the first group to record Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away”.

The group continues to this day, although all of the original members have since passed away. This set won’t be to everyone’s taste in gospel music so I’d suggest that you listen to a few tracks before purchasing the set. The humble sincerity and beauty of the singing will likely have you reconsidering your idea of gospel music.

singing fisherman2. JOHNNY HORTON – THE SINGING FISHERMAN: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS OF JOHNNY HORTON
Also released in late 2014, this nine disc set chronicles the recording career of one of the brightest stars of the Louisiana Hayride, whose life was cut short in 1960 when he was killed in an automobile accident. Some may recall that Johnny Cash was one of his best friends and some may remember that his widow was also the widow of Hank Williams Sr.

To the extent that Johnny Horton is remembered today, it is for the recordings he made with Columbia Records starting in 1956 with “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m A One Woman Man”, songs thirty years later covered for hits later by Dwight Yoakam and George Jones.
Johnny’s biggest hit was “The Battle of New Orleans” which reached #1 on both the pop (six weeks) and country charts (ten weeks)in 1959. He had two other #1 records in “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” (1959) and “North to Alaska” released ten days after his death.

Those great Columbia Recordings are all here, but Johnny was an active recording artist from 1952 forward, recording with Abbott Records and Mercury Records, as well as some smaller labels. The Abbott Recordings were pretty pedestrian but Johnny cut some real treasures for Mercury, some of which were regional hits. Those long-lost earlier recordings are here as well, sounding as good as they will ever sound. These recordings encompass Johnny singing straight country , western, rockabilly and historical saga songs. The set comes with two hardcover books.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘The Lost Tapes’

lost tapesDuring the 1960s and 1970s it was not uncommon for the various branches of the US Military to put together fifteen or thirty minute radio shows for use on country radio stations. Mostly these shows aired on smaller radio stations, usually in air slots where it was difficult for them to sell advertising. Some of these shows, such as COUNTRY MUSIC TIME (a recruiting tool for the US Air Force) and COUNTRY COOKING WITH LEE ARNOLD ( a recruiting program for the Army Reserves) featured some chatter with the weeks’ musical guests followed by some records by the musical guest. Others, such as NAVY HOEDOWN, featured chatter with the featured artist playing with the program’s band.

CONNIE SMITH – THE LOST TAPES comes from the NAVY HOEDOWN radio programs. Unlike most of the military recruiter programs, NAVY HOEDOWN would feature the same artist for four consecutive weeks. Each program was fifteen minutes long, and would feature some chatter with host Hal Durham (later to become the general manager of the Grand Ole Opry), some recruitment plugs and four songs. Marty Stuart is the producer of this reissue project. I remember hearing these programs sometime during 1973 or 1974 so they were probably recorded in 1972 or 1973, which was about the time Connie was moving from RCA to Columbia.

There are no revelations here, as the NAVY HOEDOWN program focused upon the artists’ hits and other songs familiar to the artist. What we do have is eleven excellent recordings of Connie Smith at her vocal peak singing songs. Below is the list of the songs on this project:

1. Just One Time
2. I Never Once Stopped Loving You
3. Louisiana Man
4. Cincinnati, Ohio
5. Just For What I Am
6. Once a Day
7. If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)
8. Long Black Limousine
9. The Race Is On
10. Amazing Grace
11. How Great Thou Art

Songs 1-7 were songs that were singles for Connie Smith on RCA. Tracks 8 & 9 were hits for other artists and tracks 10 & 11 were gospel songs Ms. Smith has always sung. Cracker Barrel has a CD version with two additional songs, “Where Is My Castle ? ” (my favorite Connie Smith song) and the gospel song “He Touched Me”. The sound quality of the CD is better than the mp3 download.

There are no personnel listings with the digital downloads I obtained so I am guessing as to who plays on the sessions. The steel guitar player clearly is NOT Weldon Myrick, so that alone is enough to give the recordings a different feel than her RCA recordings. My best guess is that Pete Drake is playing the steel guitar. I think the fiddler is Johnny Gimble. From the liner notes, it seems that Marty Stuart is sure that Pete Drake was the steel player and Johnny Gimble was the fiddle player. I have no idea as to the identity of the other musicians on the sessions, but they are clearly members of Nashville’s A-Team.

Regardless of who is playing on the sessions, this is Connie Smith at the absolute peak of her powers with appropriate, but different enough instrumental backing to make this a desirable purchase for her fans. Definitely an A+ recording.

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Marty Stuart – ‘Oh, What A Silent Night’

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Wine Into Water’

wine into waterBrown had fought a longstanding battle with alcohol, and this intensified after he lost his deal with Capitol. Having overcome it with the support of his wife Sheila, he returned to music in 1998 with the independent Wine Into Water, co-produced by his old friend Gary Nicholson.

The title track is stunning, perhaps the best thing Brown has ever cut, and drawing deeply on his own experiences. It is a moving plea from an alcoholic struggling with his compulsions, and begging God for help one last time:

So many times I’ve hurt the ones I love
I pushed them to the edge of giving up
They stood by me but how much can they stand
If I don’t put this bottle in your hands

Tonight I’m as low as any man can go
I’m down and I can’t fall much farther
Once upon a time you turned the water into wine
Now on my knees I’m turning to you Father
Could you help me turn the wine back into water?

I shook my fist at Heaven for all the hell that I’ve been through
Now I’m begging for forgiveness
And a miracle from you

The song was a big success o the Christian country charts, but the lack of major label muscle stopped it from repeating the feat on mainstream radio.

Almost as good is the melancholic ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away’, a wonderful Paul Craft song once recorded by Linda Ronstadt and also by Willie Nelson. Brown’s version features Marty Stuart on mandolin and showcases his own emotional vocals.

Nothing else is quite as good, but I enjoyed ‘Happy Ever After’ (a non-charting single for Gail Davies in 1990). Brown’s version is beefier, both in terms of the production and his vocals, but the latter give it a real emotional heft, focussing on the slog of building a love into a life together. I also liked the rockabilly piano-led ‘Hide And Seek’ and the soulful ‘Accept My Love’. ‘A Better Word For Love’ is a jazzy loungy ballad which makes an interesting change of pace.

‘Good Days, Bad Days’ is a bit dull. ‘Never In A Million Tears’ is very powerfully sung but an average song. ‘How Do You Know’ is a black gospel tune which is also well done.

The funky and partly spoken ‘Memphis Women And Chicken’ comes across as self-indulgent to me, but will appeal to those who like that style. The shouty ‘Livin’ On doesn’t do anything for me either.

This album contains two great tracks, and a number of good ones, and is Brown’s usual mixture of stylings.

Grade: B