My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Merle Haggard

Book Review: Freddy Powers and Catherine Powers with Jake Brown – ‘The Spree Of 83’

Freddy Powers, country-jazz musician and songwriter, was an influential figure, not least as sidekick to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The book was started a few years before his death last year aged 84, with the help of his wife Catherine and professional writer Jake Brown.

It is neither biography not autobiography, coming across more as a set of clippings, or the script for a documentary’s voiceovers. Freddy himself, Catherine, and various friends and colleagues from his past (including the late Haggard), are all quoted at length talking about the man and incidents in his life, with each original interview or set of interviews chopped up and scattered through the book, interspersed with reviews of albums and concerts from the press, and the lyrics of many of Powers’ songs. I would have preferred some overarching third (or first) person narrative which would have made it feel more cohesive. (It could also have done with a sharper eye proofreading, as there are a few spelling errors throughout.) There is also a chapter comprising rare photographs, but unfortunately these do not translate well to a kindle reading. However, there are some fascinating anecdotes and the book offers some insight into Haggard at the peak of his career.

The book’s title comes from the period in the early 80s (actually covering several years, not just the 1983 of the title) when Freddy and Haggard lived on adjacent houseboats on Lake Shasta. Both separated or divorced and happy to be single again, they engaged in a hedonistic mix of drugs and sex with an everchanging group of women, while writing songs. It’s probably not the book to read if you want to believe your heroes never have feet of clay, although to be fair everyone involved seems to have had a really good time with no regrets.

This period is not the sole focus of the book, although as an incredibly creative time it does loom quite large in the story. Freddy also talks about his childhood and early career, and about his love story with his last wife Catherine (20 years his junior but very evidently the love of his life). In his last years, when the ravages of Parkinson’s disease stopped him from playing the guitar, he adopted more of a cuddly grandpa persona and served as mentor to young female artists, including Texas artist Pauline Reese and Mary Sarah.

So the content is absorbing; it’s just a shame that it was not better produced with more editorial input.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Nathan Carter: ‘Celtic Roots (Live)’

For whatever reason, I was unable to obtain a digital copy of the album Where I Wanna Be. Instead, Amazon continuously linked me to the above-referenced album, which contains the song “Where I Wanna Be”, so I went ahead and purchased the digital download.

I will say that this 2017 release is not exactly a country album, but it is a good value for money with 18 tracks of mostly Celtic music, well performed. I happen to be a huge fan of traditional Irish folk music with a large collection of the stuff. This album apparently is of a performance for public television.

Recorded in Ireland, this album presents an interesting mix of classic of Irish folk songs, Celtic ballads, some country-flavored ballads and some of his hits. Nathan is joined by his stage band, a string quartette, a choral group and also by a former member of the group Celtic Woman, Chloe Agnew.

The album opens up with “Loch Lomond”, a very familiar Scottish tune given the full Scottish treatment with bagpipes and some sort of orchestral backing and a modern rhythm track. Nathan slows the song down considerably at the start of the vocal but picks up the tempo on the second verse. Nathan presents a very interesting treatment of a song that I’ve heard countless times before, including in many Hollywood movies.

Next up is “Where I Wanna Be”, a country single from 2013, written by Carter, that is simultaneously both country and Irish.

This hotel is just like yesterday’s,

And the city has no name.

It just stands there in the Grey haze,

And my room is the same.
 

Well I’m gonna call that number,

So far across the sea.

I wish I was in Ireland,

That’s where I wanna be,

That’s where I wanna be.

This is followed by “Caledonia” an Irish folk song (not the 1940s jump hit by Louis Jordan and/or Woody Herman. This lovely ballad was released as a single in 2013.

“Banks of Roses” is a very Celtic ballad with bodhrán, fiddle, accordion, penny whistle – the sort of thing the Chieftains would play.

The medley of “Spanish Lady”, “As I Roved Out” and “The Real Auld Mountain Dew” is a reflection of the great Irish folk groups of the past two generations such as The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maken, The Dubliners and The Dublin City Ramblers with perhaps a little more rhythm thrown in. This is a fabulous medley – even someone with two left feet such as I, feels the urge to get up and dance.

Next up is Chloe Agnew with the quiet ballad “Grace” basically accompanied by acoustic guitar and little else. This is probably the slowest song on the album.

An Irish tin whistle (or pennywhistle) opens up “Hard Times”, served up as a duet between Choe and Nathan. Most will probably be familiar with the song through Bob Dylan’s recording, but the song dates back to 19th century American writer Stephen Foster:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,

While we all sup sorrow with the poor;

There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;

Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Chorus:
 ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,

Hard Times, hard times, come again no more.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;

Oh! Hard times come again no more

“Temple Bar” was a 2016 single for Nathan:

There’s a busker playin’ on the street
Watching all the people meet
The boys and girls are back in Dublin town
There’s young ones there from everywhere
From America to God knows where

It’s just another night in Temple Bar
So come on down, out on the town
Cause’ this is where a good time can be found
So bring along the old squeeze box, the fiddle and guitar
Let’s have a good old night in Temple Bar

For me, the only misstep on the album comes with the next song “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, a Paul Simon song that I’ve heard far too many times. Nathan sings it well but the chorus and strings are overkill – he should have given it the two minute Buck Owens treatment.

“Wagon Wheel” was a Bob Dylan song fragment that Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show completed. Nathan released it as a single in 2012. The song reached #12 on the Irish pop charts, his biggest hit. I really like this version, probably better than any other version I’ve heard aside from Jeremy McComb’s outstanding hard country version from decade ago.

This is followed by an up-tempo, virtually breathless, instrumental medley of reels.

“Jealous of The Angels” is a very slow sad ballad about the unexpected loss of a loved one. I don’t know who wrote the song, but it was originally recorded by Donna Taggart of Celtic Woman (she may have written it) and is a stunning song that Nathan Carter positively nails

I didn’t know today would be our last
Or that I’d have to say goodbye to you so fast
I’m so numb, I can’t feel anymore
Prayin’ you’d just walk back through that door
And tell me that I was only dreamin’
You’re not really gone as long as I believe

There will be another angel
Around the throne tonight
Your love lives on inside of me
And I will hold on tight
It’s not my place to question
Only God knows why
I’m just jealous of the angels
Around the throne tonight

The mood and tempo stay down with the old Irish folk song “Home to Donegal”

Fortunately the mood brightens and the tempo picks up with of the most famous of Irish folk songs, “The Irish Rover”. Usually when I hear this song the audience, the performer or both are well lubricated (and they would need to be for the lyrics to make much sense). Usually too, the audience is singing along. Many will remember the song from the Pogues, but the song is much older than that. Nathan gives it a very exuberant treatment

In the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and six,
We set sail from the Coal Quay of Cork
We were sailing away with a cargo of bricks
For the grand City Hall in New York
We’d an elegant craft, it was rigged ‘fore and aft
And how the trade winds drove her
She had twenty-three masts and she stood several blasts
And they called her the Irish Rover

There was Barney Magee from the banks of the Lee
There was Hogan from County Tyrone
There was Johnny McGurk who was scared stiff of work
And a chap from Westmeath named Malone
There was Slugger O’Toole who was drunk as a rule
And fighting Bill Tracy from Dover
And your man Mick McCann, from the banks of the Bann
Was the skipper on the Irish Rover

We had one million bags of the best Sligo rags
We had two million barrells of bone
We had three million bales of old nanny goats’ tails
We had four million barrells of stone
We had five million hogs and six million dogs
And seven million barrells of porter
We had eight million sides of old blind horses’ hides
In the hold of the Irish Rover

We had sailed seven years when the measles broke out
And our ship lost her way in a fog
And the whole of the crew was reduced down to two
‘Twas myself and the captain’s old dog
Then the ship struck a rock, oh, Lord what a shock
And nearly tumbled over
Turned nine times around then the poor old dog was drowned
I’m the last of the Irish Rover

“The Town I Loved So Well” is a slow sentimental ballad. At six plus minutes, it could drag a little but the Nathan Carter vocal carries you along.

It’s back to high gear with “South Australia”, a popular folk song found in the English, Irish and Australian musical canons. Nathan starts it slowly then kicks it up.

The album closes with “Liverpool” a 2016 single and “Good Time Girls”. The latter shares the melody and most of the lyrics of the American folk song “Buffalo Girls”

Having only heard the video clips on the MKOC blog and a few snippets on Amazon, I wasn’t what to expect. Now I know that Nathan Carter is an excellent vocalist who can put on an outstanding live show. To fans of modern country music (such as it is) the linear resemblance to American country music is remote. To those of us who grew up thinking that Haggard, Jones, Snow, Tubb, Cline and Arnold are representative of country music, the line back to the Irish folk music is short and direct. While there are only traces of classic country instrumentation, the songs and the vocals make clear that connection.

With few exceptions, I really love this album and I can live with the few tracks that I don’t love.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Old Country Song’

The latest album from 90s star and cancer survivor Wade Hayes shows he is still in possession of a great traditional country voice. He and co-producer Dave McAfee have found some excellent songs.

The opening ‘Can’t Get Close Enough To You’ is a sultry love song addressed to the protagonist’s wife of many years, and is one of four songs on the album written by Hayes, all loosely on the theme of marriage. Of the others, The nostalgic ‘Full Moon Summer Night’ is sung with passion, but is not all that interesting a song. The pace is increased with the wry up-tempo ‘I Wish I Still Drank’, which reflects on the contrast between a wild youth and a sober happy married life. The last of Wade’s own songs, ‘She Knows Me’, is a grateful commentary on his relationship with his wife:
She knows me and she loves me anyway

There are a couple of classic covers: a faithful remake of the Conway Twitty hit ‘Julia’, with an emotional vocal. Haggard’s ‘Going Where The Lonely Go’ works perfectly for Wade, and is a highlight. Wade’s love for real country music is also reflected in the title tune, a lovely Roger Springer-penned song about the power of music:

I’m as old as time
Born in a poet’s mind
I can reach across the ocean and hit the mark
Be an answered prayer to a broken heart
And I can go on and on and on about life
Talk about love
I can philosophize
Make a woman cry
Stop a man in his tracks and send him on back home
I’m just an old country song

I started out in a freight car to the rhythm of the track
One night I was left unfinished in the back of a Cadillac
Spent some time at Folsom …
And for a little while those men were free

Springer also wrote (with Tim Menzies) ‘I Don’t Understand’, an entertaining Western Swing number about the complexity of love which was previously recorded by Springer’s own band, the Roger Springer Band.

Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander and Phillip White wrote ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful duet with Megan Mullins about friendship and unrequited love, which was previously cut by Shelley Skidmore and Greg Bates. ‘Needed The Rain’ is a strong Chris Stapleton song.

The album closes with a tastefully stripped down and sincerely delivered version of the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’.

This is an excellent album, and I strongly recommend it.

Grade: A

Week ending 9/2/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: Branded Man — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1977Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue — Crystal Gayle (United Artists)

1987: Born to Boogie — Hank Williams Jr. (Warner Bros./Curb)

1997: She’s Got It All — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2007: Never Wanted Nothing More — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Somebody Else Will — Justin Moore (Valory)

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

Music In My Heart is Charley’s first new album since Choices, which was issued in 2011. Charley is now 79 years old; however, his voice seems to have hardly aged at all. I suspect that he may have lost a little off the top of his range but the quality of what remains is outstanding.

Noted songwriter Billy Yates served as the producer of this album, as well as providing several of the songs and singing background on a few of the songs. Yates provides Charley with an updated version of the Nashville Sound minus the strings and soulless vocal choruses. Such stalwarts as Mike Johnson, Robby Turner and Scotty Sanders handle the steel guitar, while Stuart Duncan handles fiddle and mandolin.

The album opens up with the Tommy Collins classic “New Patches” that served up the last top ten single for Mel Tillis back in 1984.

Now and then an old friend tries to help me
By telling me there’s someone I should meet
But I don’t have the heart to start all over
‘Cause my heart is laying at another’s feet

[Chorus:]
You just don’t put new patches on old garments
I don’t want no one else on my mind
I just don’t need nobody new to cling to
I still love someone I’ve known a long long time

“Country” Johnny Mathis (1930-2011), so named so as to not be mistaken for the pop singer of the same name, is nearly forgotten today, but he was a fine songwriter and “Make Me One More Memory” is a fine mid-tempo song, handled with aplomb by Pride.

Take my heart, my soul, my heaven
Take my world away from me
All I ask is one last favor
Make me one more memory

Ben Peters provided Charley with many big hits so it is natural for Pride to raid the Ben Peters songbag for material. Co-written with son Justin Peters, “Natural Feeling For You” is the kind of ballad that could have been a hit during the 1970s or 1980s.

“All By My Lonesome” reminds me of the 1992 Radney Foster song “Just Call Me Lonesome”, although this song comes from Billy Yates and Terry Clayton. This is a mid-tempo ballad with a solid vocal by Pride.

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

Drinkin’ and cryin’
So close to dyin’
I’m next to no one
All by my lonesome

Thanks for sendin’ someone by to see if I’m alright
I appreciate your concern tonight
But I don’t need no company
To offer up their sympathy
If it ain’t you then I would rather be

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

“It Wasn’t That Funny” was written by Yates and Dobby Lowery. The song is a lovely ballad about an almost breakup, that a couple experienced and can laugh about now, but brought moments of anguish along the way.

Lee Bach penned “The Same Eyes That Always Drove Crazy”, a mid-tempo ballad of a chance meeting after years of separation. This song would have made a good single at any point before about 2005. The song features some really nice steel guitar by Mike Johnson and piano by Steve Nathan.

Billy Yates and Billy Lawson chipped in the introspective ballad “I Learned A Lot”, in which the narrator relives the lessons he’s learned from losing his previous love. The song first appeared on Billy’s album Only One George Jones.

“You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine” was written by Lee Bach, Larry Mercey and Dave Lindsey. The title references what was on the jukebox the first time the narrator met his love. The song has a nice Texas shuffle arrangement (the song references the Ray Price classic “Crazy Arms” and mentions taking out Ray’s old records). Again, this is another song that would have made a good single in bygone years.

“The Way It Was in ‘51” was written by Merle Haggard and was the title track for one of the Hag’s great albums and was the B-side of Hag’s “The Roots of My Raising”.

Sixty-Six was still a narrow two-lane highway
Harry Truman was the man who ran the show
The bad Korean War was just beginning
And I was just three years too young to go

Country music hadn’t gone to New York City yet
And a service man was proud of what he’d done
Hank and Lefty crowded every jukebox
That’s the way it was in fifty one

“Lee Bach” wrote “I Just Can’t Stop Missing You”, a nice ballad that makes for a good album track but wouldn’t ever have been considered for a single. This song apparently has keyboards mimicking the sound of strings giving it more of a Nashville Sound production than the other tracks on the album.

“Whispering Bill” Anderson wrote “You Lied To Me” a song that I don’t think he ever recorded, but Tracy Byrd recorded it on his 1995 album Love Lessons. Charley does a bang up job with the song

You looked at me as only you can look at me
You touched my cheek and told me not to cry
But you said you’d found somebody you loved more than me
And you told me I’d forget you by and by

But you lied to me, yes you lied to me
You said time would close the wound that bled inside of me
But every breath I take brings back your memory
You said I’d forget you, but you lied to me

“Standing In My Way” comes from Billy Yates and Jim McCormick, an interesting ballad of self-recriminations.

The album closes with a spritely up-tempo number from “Country” Johnny Mathis, “Music In My Heart”.

I really liked this album. In fact I would regard this as Charley’s best album in over twenty years. I like the song selections, I like the arrangements and I like Charley’s vocals. Radio won’t play these songs but they should – it’s their loss! Maybe Willie’s Roadhouse will play it – after all octogenarian Willie believes in giving the youngsters a chance. This album doesn’t have a dud among its tracks – solid A.

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard ft Janie Fricke – ‘A Place To Fall Apart’

Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Sweet Country’

Charley Pride released his seventeenth album, Sweet Country, via RCA Victor in 1973. It was helmed, as per usual, by Jack Clement.

The album spawned two singles, both of which topped the charts. The honest, “A Shoulder To Cry On,” a ballad about a man taking advantage of a friend’s emotional support, was lovingly written by Merle Haggard (he recorded his own version, on It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) a year earlier). “Don’t Fight the Feelings of Love,” written by John Schweers, is an excellent country shuffle.

No less than three of the album’s ten tracks were penned by Ben Peters, who had given Pride his career hit (“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”) just two years earlier. “The Happiest Song on the Jukebox,” a bright traditional tune, is both a study in familiarity and contrast. This is Pride’s signature style, yet the lyric contradicts everything we’ve come to know about jukebox songs. Trading sad songs for happy ones isn’t something you hear every day. Peters also contributed “Just To Be Loved By You,” a pleasant string-laced ballad and “Tennessee Girl,” a mid-tempo ode to the woman and lifestyle left behind in hopes of greener pastures that never materialized.

Don Williams is responsible for “The Shelter of Your Eyes,” which he recorded the following year on his Volume One album. Pride does a surprisingly decent job with the dobro accented ballad, especially since he and Williams don’t have similar styles at all (in all fairness, no one captures the mellow conversational tone Williams brought to his music).

“I’m Learning to Love Her,” written by Johnny Duncan, is as honest and forthright a love song as I’ve ever heard. The protagonist is talking with his old love about his new flame, admitting that he’s simply “learning to love her in time.” George Strait knows “You Can’t Make A Heart Love Somebody,” but with a little patience, Duncan and Pride believe it’s possible to come around.

“Along the Mississippi,” an ode to happy memories along the titular river, is an engaging and ear-catching mid-tempo number. “Love Unending” is a sonically adventurous love song, with a man making promises to the woman he hopes will confess her love to him. “Pass Me By” is a piano and steel drenched ballad in which a guy wants something more, but if the woman can’t give it to him, he hopes she’ll just leave him alone.

Of the three albums I reviewed this month, Sweet Country shows the most progression in Pride’s development as an artist. The Nashville Sound era trappings are gone, due to the changing tides in mainstream country, and the music itself is less cheesy. This is the style of Pride’s music I prefer and thus Sweet Country is indeed excellent.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Songs Of Love’

Released in December 1972, Songs of Love By Charley Pride was Charley’s 13th studio album and his least successful album since 1967. The album did reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Album chart, but only reach #149 on Billboard’s all-genres album chart. As usual Jack Clement was the producer.

For whatever reason, the songs on this album and the arrangements seemed mostly derivative of Charley’s prior efforts. Make no mistake about it, this is a solid country album, with fiddle and guitar throughout; however, the overall production has a little more of an easy listening feel to it.

The opening track is “Too Weak To Let Go”, a mid-tempo ballad that is pleasant enough but not really worthy of consideration as a single. The song is about an affair that the narrator feels that he should end but really can’t bring himself to do.

I was on the rebound from a broken love affair
When I first caught a glimpse of her in you
And though you never measured up to what she meant to me
I couldn’t find the words to tell you so

Cause I’m not strong enough to leave you and too weak to let you go
You give me precious love to hold on to
But somehow deep inside I’ve got a feeling that you know
I’m not strong enough to leave you and too weak to let you go

The only single on the album was the Johnny Duncan composition “She’s Too Good To Be True”, a solid country song with fiddle and steel tandem work on the introduction and thereafter. The song spent three weeks at #1 and is what love should be about.

Sometimes late at night I wake up dreaming
I reach and feel for her she’s too good to be true
Then I touch the sleeping softness of my angel
And half asleep she turns to whisper I love you

Cause she’s just too good to be true but she is
And in my arms she reassures me with a kiss
She’s everything I ever looked for in a woman
She’s just too good to be true but she is

Ben Peters, who supplied Charley with “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” and “It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer”, also provided Charley with “She’s That Kind”, another positive love song. Some of the instrumental accompaniment harkens back to “It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer”.

She can take the morning rain falling on my window pane
And turn it into sunshine in my mind
And she can take the darkest night and brighten it with a love sweet light
And I’m satisfied just knowing she’s that kind

And I can feel so down and out but she knows what it’s all about
And she can help me leave it all behind
There’s someting in the way she smiles that seems to brighten all my trials
It’s good to know my woman is that kind

[Chorus]
She’s that kind that I’m thankful to the Lord above
For sending me that kind of woman for me to love
If I could live another life and I could choose another wife
I wouldn’t change a thing cause she’s that kind

“You Were All The Good In Me” is a slow ballad about what the narrator lost when he lost his woman. The melody reminds me of “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)”.

“Give A Lonely Heart A Home” has an upbeat arrangement that that seems overly familiar. It’s a nice song, a mid-tempo ballad, although the vocal chorus seems a bit obtrusive.

Well, just look close and you might find the saddest heart in town is mine
And should we give true love a try our hearts just might see eye to eye
So if you’re looking for a way to do your good deed for today
The one thing you could do and not go wrong is give a lonely heart a home
So just give a lonely heart a home…

If I need to give the history of “Good-Hearted Woman”, that means that you must have dropped in from another planet. Charley does a nice job with the song, but if released as a single by him, I suspect it would not have been a chart topper. Nice fiddle and piano on the chorus are the standout features on this recording.

“Love You More In Memory” is a chugging ballad about a lost love.

I heard “My Love Is Deep, My Love Is Wide” with some frequency on the radio, leading me to wonder if RCA considered releasing this upbeat Ben Peters song as a single. I think it would have made an excellent single.

My love is deep, my love is wide
You can’t see across to the other side
My love is deep my love is wide
I’ve got too much love for you for me too hard to hide

People say I’m not the man they used to know
Something made a change come over me
And when I feel such happiness I guess it’s gotta show
Cause I’m a happy man, that’s plain to see
Cause baby my love is deep…

Johnny Duncan’s “(Darlin’ Think of Me) Every Now and Then” is a really nice ballad that someone should have issued as a single. Duncan’s career as a performer would not hit high gear until 1976, but this song might have accelerated the process for him.

The album closes with “I’m Building Bridges”, a slow ballad about the protagonist’s efforts to win back his lost love:

I’ve been working every day since you’ve been gone
Mending the road that our love once traveled on
And I’ll have you back when I am through
Cause I’m building bridges that will take me back to you

Back in the day I would eagerly purchase every new Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Charley Pride albums as they were release, with other artists being purchased if I had any money left over. While I liked this album, it wasn’t as satisfactory as Charley’s previous albums and thereafter I skipped over some of Charley’s albums, either waiting his hits collections to be issued, or waiting until a used or cut-out copy could be obtained.

I’d give this album a B+

Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘It Makes No Difference Now’

Album Review: Zephaniah OHora with The 18 Wheelers – ‘This Highway’

Finding good new country music used to be as simple as turning on the radio to one’s local country station. That hasn’t been a viable option for several years now, and the process of learning about new artists has become something akin to going to a rummage sale. Most of the time you’ll walk away empthy handed, but if you’re willing to to put in the time and not afraid to get your hands dirty by sifting through a lot of junk, you may stumble across the occasional gem.

Such is the case with Brooklyn, New York native Zephaniah OHora, whose new independently-released This Highway becamae available last month. While too many, if not most, non-mainstream “country” releases are mostly rock music with a little fiddle, This Highway is an amalgamation of 1960s Bakersfield and countrypolitan. The rawness of the Bakersfield sound is offset by the countrypolitan polish, although OHora wisely avoids the excesses of the Nashville Sound (vocal choruses and lush orchestral arrangements). And while OHora’s vocals are nowhere near the calibre of Merle Haggard’s, the Haggard influence is readily apparent and one can easily imagine Merle singing some of these songs, particularly “Songs My Mama Sang”, “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough”, “Way Down In My Soul” and “For A Moment or Two.” “High Class City Girl From The Country”, on the other hand, is a laid-back number with some very nice acoustic guitar that is reminiscent of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind”.

Most of the songs are originals; the one notable exception being a cover “Somethin’ Stupid” with singer/songwriter Dori Freeman playing Nancy Sinatra to Zephaniah’s Ol’ Blue Eyes. It seems a bit out of place on this album. I was tempted to label it a misfire, but the truth is it is well done; it’s just a song I never particularly cared for. I could have done without it but it’s not something I can’t sit through.

The album’s main flaw is a lack of variety in tempo. It would have benefited from one or two more upbeat numbers. As it is, the songs tend to blur together a bit and overall it may be too mellow for some listeners. It is available on the subscription streaming sites and can also be heard on YouTube, but I hope that fans of traditional country music will buy a copy. It’s refreshing to know that someone is still making this kind of music, and as such, it deserves our support.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Country Way’

Released in December 1967, Charley’s third album was his first to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums charts and even hit #199 on the all-genres chart, starting a run of fourteen consecutive top ten albums, all but one of which were top five or better.

The album opens up with the Jack Clement composition “Too Hard To Say I’m Sorry”, a plodding ballad that in the hands of (almost) anyone else, would have been a complete misfire. In Charley’s hands this song of self recrimination conveys the story of a man whose pride gets in the way of apologizing and perhaps salvaging the most important relationship in his life.

Just two words were all that she would ask of me
And I could have the world and all it holds for me
Of love and tender care, not the pain and the sorrow
That will be mine tomorrow, but I just can’t seem to say it – I’m sorry

I know exactly what I should do admit I’m wrong, it wouldn’t take long
And she’d forgive me
And I know exactly what I ought to say, but I’m not built that way
Wish that I could say I’m sorry

Next up is another Jack Clement ballad, “The Little Folks”, a song that assesses who the real losers are in a divorce. I’ve heard Willie Nelson perform the song but I’m not if he ever recorded the song.

“Crystal Chandeliers” was written by Ted Harris, but the hit went to the great songwriter Carl Belew. For whatever reason, other than “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”, this has become Charley’s most requested song, even though it was never a Charley Pride single in the USA (I think it was a single for Charley in parts of Europe). Charley would repeat the song in his Live At Panther Hall album released in January 1969.

Oh, the crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on your wall
The marble statuettes are standing stately in the hall
But will the timely crowd that has you laughing loud help you dry your tears
When the new wears off of your crystal chandeliers

“Act Naturally” was a cover of a huge Buck Owens hit from a few years earlier. Johnny Russell wrote the song and certainly saw considerable royalties from the records sold by Buck and The Beatles, let alone all the other covers. Charley’s version is good but not electrifying as was Buck’s version.

“Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger”, a Robertson/Crutchfeld/Clement collaboration, reached #4, his third straight top ten single. This song of a wayward wife just drips with understated irony.

Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night?
When I bought it for you, darling, it seemed to be just right
Should I take it to the jeweler so it won’t fit so tight?
Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night?

Did you enjoy yourself last night, dear, how was the show?
You know that I don’t mind it when you go
I understand sometimes we all need time alone
But why do you always leave your ring at home?

This is followed by “Mama Don’t Cry For Me” which the underrated Johnny Seay (or Sea) released as a non-charting single a few years later. I really liked Seay’s version, and Charley does a fine job with the song as well, although with a slightly less dramatic reading of the song. Fred Foster and Johnny Wilson wrote this song:

I’ve seen the big fish jumping, mama, I’ve heard crickets sing
And I’ve felt my heart start pounding at the side of New Orleans
I’ve seen the New York City with her lights aglow
I’ve been a lot of places always on the go
I’ve seen most everything I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me …

I’ve climbed the highest mountains covered with snow
I’ve seen most everything I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me
I’m sending you this message, mama, I must say goodbye
I live the life you gave me, mama, I’m not afaid to die

Even though I’m dying, mama, the hands of death are strong
I don’t want you crying, mama, after I’m gone
I’ve seen all of this old world I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me
So mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me

The second single released from this album was the Jerry Foster/Bill Rice collaboration “The Day The World Stood Still”. This ballad of lost love reached #4.

For one day in my life
You brought me happiness
You stopped the lonely world
With all your tenderness

I can’t get over you
I guess I never will
Time was a precious thing
The day the world stood still

The next song, another Jack Clement composition, is one of my favorite Charley Pride recordings. In the middle of the song Charley calls out ‘here’s Big Joe Talbot and his electric Hawaiian steel guitar’ by way of introducing Big Joe’s instrumental break. Charley did not release this song as a single but later in the year, the Jack Clement produced Tompall & The Glaser Brothers released it as a charting single, and they too made the same introduction of Big Joe Talbot (and basically used the same arrangement).

Someday I think I’ll take up thinking and try my best to understand
How she could be loving me forever and leaving on the other hand
Last night I thought I’d see a movie to help me get my thoughts in hand
I think what I saw was the western preacher or James Bond on the other hand
I placed the ring upon one finger of her left hand
The one who said she’d stay forever is gone on the other hand

Next up is a sad ballad about a love that can’t be, written by Country Johnny Mathis. “You Can Tell The World” is pleasant enough listening, but would never be regarded as singles material.

Mel Tillis and Danny Dill provided “I’ll Wander Back To You”. This song is a cover of the Earl Scott single that reached #30 in 1965. It’s a nice, but not terribly exciting, tale of wanderlust:

They say I’m like my daddy, always on the roam
I know he loved my mama but he couldn’t stay at home
I vowed to not be like him but somewhere I went wrong
Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere and the girl I love at home
One of these days I’m gonna quit my wandering
One of these days I’ll wander back to you

Younger listeners may remember Ricky Van Shelton’s 1988 #1 single of the Harlan Howard classic “Life Turned Her That Way”. Older listeners may remember the 1967 Mel Tillis recording that just missed the top ten or perhaps an earlier recording by Little Jimmy Dickens. Charley does a very good job with the song.

No one could out-Haggard Merle Haggard on one of his compositions, and Charley couldn’t either. His version of “I Threw Away The Rose” is a pleasant jog-along ballad but nothing more than that.

I liked this album, but think that the song selection was not quite as strong as on his debut album. The vocal choruses remain, but the songs are string-free and the vocal accompaniments are not too obtrusive. Nothing about this album suggest that this is anything but a country album, and while the big blockbuster singles were still on the horizon, it was clear that they were coming.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

“Traditional country music is a whole different genre,” Vincent said. “A lot of people will say that there is not a market for traditional country music, but I know that is not true as it has its own niche. I did that traditional country album with Gene Watson not long ago, and I found out that there is a tremendous audience out there for traditional country music. Daryle and I have been doing shows together, and he is so much fun. When everybody hears this new album, they will know how special it is.” – Rhonda Vincent discussing American Grandstand. h/t That Nashville Sound

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Your Money and My Good Looks, which helped redefine Vincent’s pedigree beyond bluegrass. American Grandstand is a companion album of sorts to the project with Watson, a chance to recreate the magic all over again. Her friendship with Daryle Singletary goes back 23 years when they were labelmates on Giant Records. One of their earliest collaborations, a cover of Keith Whitley’s “Would These Arms Be In Your Way,” appeared on his self-titled debut album. They’ve collaborated frequently through the years, most recently on “We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds,” from Vincent’s Only Me in 2014.

To say American Grandstand has been a long time coming is an understatement. With the timing finally right, they went into the studio to craft an album that mixes old and new, covers of classic duets interwoven amongst tracks newly-composed. A few of the duets may be oft-covered, but in the care of Vincent and Singletary, are as expertly executed as they’ve ever been. They tackle the mournful nature of “After The Fire Is Gone” with ease and extract the effervesce from “Golden Ring” without issue. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a revelation, one of the strongest collaborative recordings I’ve heard in years.

They also surprise, with a stunning rendition of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’ lesser-known “Slowly and Surely.” Also not as famous is George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “One,” which the pair released in 1996. Vincent and Singletary’s serviceable take is the album’s lead single. Other surprises include Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” which they deliver flawlessly. A third Jones cover, “A Picture of Me (Without You)” is also very good. “Up This Hill and Down,” which originated with The Osborne Brothers, is excellent.

The remainder of the album consists of the new songs, which include a reprise of “We Must Be Out of Our Minds.” These tracks are all ballads, which varying degrees of tempo. “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye,” about the end of a relationship, feels like the kind of track Singletary would’ve recorded back in the mid-1990s. In any other era, “Can’t Live Life” would be cemented as a standard.

If you can believe it, the rest of the album only slightly pails in comparison to the title track, which showcases Vincent as a songwriter (she wrote it solo). The spellbinding ballad is a grand finale of sorts, detailing the tale of duet partners preparing for their final show and the emotions attached to such an ending. I love how Vincent presents the well-worn themes in a new and exciting light.

American Grandstand is everything you would expect from a Vincent and Singletary collaboration, yet it’s even more deeply satisfying than you could even imagine. In a rare move, they actually sang together in the studio, at the instance of Singetary, who knew immediately that recording separately wasn’t going to work. The pair were born to sing together, even if Vincent’s power overtakes Singletary’s understated charm on occasion. He sounds to me like a modern day incarnation of Whitley, with a voice that has deepened over the years. It proves that Whitley’s influence continues to this day, which only makes this record even more special and essential.

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Charley Pride

Our July Spotlight shines on one of the true giants of the genre, a Country Music Hall of Famer whom Cashbox rated as the top country artist of the quarter century 1958-1982 despite the fact that his recording career did not begin until 1965.

Charley Pride was the first commercially successful African-American country music star. So successful was Pride that an incredible string of 35 consecutive secular songs reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox Country Charts (virtually all of these songs also reached #1 on Record World’s charts) . Starting with 1969′s “Kaw-Liga” and ending with 1980′s “You Almost Slipped My Mind”, every Charley Pride single (except the 1972 gospel record “Let Me Live”/”Did You Think To Pray” and the 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” NFL special souvenir edition) reached #1. After the streak ended, Charley would have another six songs that were #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox. “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” released in 1971, would, of course become his signature song. His forty-one #1s ranks him behind only Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and George Strait.

Charley achieved his great success despite that fact that he does not write his own material and is not an especially talented instrumentalist. All he had going for him was a sincere love for country music, a terrific ear for great songs and, of course, one of the best male voices to ever sing country music.

Originally planning on a career in Major League Baseball, Pride grew up in the cotton fields near Sledge, Mississippi, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. For whatever reason, Pride’s taste in music leaned towards country. While pitching in semi-pro baseball in Montana, Pride was “discovered” by Red Sovine, who urged him to try his luck in Nashville. Pride did just that after his hopes of a career in baseball were gone, and soon he came to the attention of legendary producer Jack Clement. Clement did everything within his power to get Pride recorded and on a label, going so far as to self-producing the singer’s early recording sessions and shopping the masters. Clement eventually persuaded Chet Atkins to add Pride to RCA.

Racial relations have come a long way since Pride emerged as country music’s top star and its first African-American superstar. The situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued his first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. Disc Jockeys of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were known to all within the industry, so the records were destined to get at least some airplay.

Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.

As a pure vocalist Charley Pride ranks with Gene Watson and Ray Price as my favorite male singers. Since it has now been three decades since Charley received any significant airplay, most of readers will not be familiar with his distinctive baritone, sometimes described as ‘tart’ or ‘chicken-fried’. However it is described, he has a fabulous voice too long been overlooked by modern listeners. Welcome to our July Spotlight artist, an artist who could never be mistaken for a pop singer, Mr. Charley Pride.

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Mama’s Prayers’