My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Merle Travis

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Keepin’ Me Up Nights’

0001597610Released in 1990 as their only studio album for Arista Records, Keepin’ Me Up Nights will do just that as it is a interesting effort throughout.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) can often feature an astounding number of musicians on stage but this album finds the band being comprised of Ray Benson on lead vocals and guitar; Larry Franklin on fiddle, guitar, and harmony vocals; Tim Alexander on piano, accordion and harmony vocals; John Ely on pedal and lap steel; Michael Francis on saxophone, Joe Mitchell on acoustic and electric bass; and David Sanger on drums. The band is augmented by Greg Jennings playing guitars and six string bass.

The album opens with “Keepin’ Me Up Nights”, a bluesy/jazzy number written by James Dean Hicks and Byron Hill.  In the albums notes Benson says the intent was to do a ‘Ray Charles sings western swing’ arrangement. I would say there were successful.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was written by Ronnie Dunn and would prove to be a major hit for Brooks & Dunn two years later. Since I heard AATW’s version jazzy version first, I found myself surprised at the Brooks & Dunn arrangement and frankly I think AATW did it better, albeit quite differently and definitely not suitable for line dancing.

“Dance With Who Brung You” is a Ray Benson original inspired by a phrase used by former Texas football coach Darrell Royal. This song is done as a mid-tempo ballad.

You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Don’t be a fickle fool,You came here with a gal, who’s always been your pal
Don’t leave her for the first unattached girl, it just ain’t cool
You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Life ain’t no forty-yard dash, be in it for the long run,
’cause in the long run you’ll have more fun, if you dance with who brung You to the bash

Ray collaborated with co-producer Tim Dubois on “Quittin’ Time”, a boogie with real nice sax solos by Michael Francis.

Lisa Silver (who played fiddle on AATW’s second album), Judy Rodman and Carol Chase join the band to provide background vocals on Bobby Braddock’s lovely “Eyes”, an exquisite slow ballad.

Troy Seals and John Schneider wrote “Goin’ Home” is a ballad about the joys of going home after being away too long. This song has a rhythmic arrangement suitable for line dancing.

Well I’ve got a lot of friends on the West Coast,
Got a lot of memories
Well I want you to know that I won’t forget
Everything you’ve done for me
But it’s been too long, just too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home
New York, Detroit, Chicago
You were really somethin’ else
You treated me just like kinfolk y’all,
And I swear I can’t help myself
But it’s been too long, way too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home

I’m gonna write a letter,
I’m gonna send a telegram
Gonna tell everybody this wanderin’ boy is packing his bags right now
And I’m’a goin’ home

“That’s The Way Love Is” was written by former (and founding) AATW member Leroy Preston in 1989. The song, a mid-tempo ballad with a strong Cajun feel to the arrangement (fiddle and accordion), tells of the ups and downs of life. John Wesley Ryles, briefly a star in his own right, chips in background vocals

“Gone But Not Forgotten” was penned by Fred Knobloch and Scott Miller is an up-tempo western swing song about where money goes. We’ve all lived this story …

The great Harlan Howard wrote “You Don’t Have To Go To Memphis”. The premise of the song is that you don’t have to go to Memphis to get the blues, just fall for the wrong woman. The song features nice piano and fiddle solos

You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
You just fall in love with the kind of women I do
Well, I’ve had me a dozen but I never had me one that
Did not fall through
You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
There she goes, here I stand
Watching good love slip away
Once again, I’m all alone
Love has come and gone

“Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)” is a classic boogie from 1940, originally recorded by Will Bradley’s Orchestra (with Ray McKinley on lead vocals). The song was a huge hit for Bradley and has been recorded many times since Bradley’s recording including Commander Cody, Ella Fitzgerald and The Andrews Sisters. The song was completely written by Don Raye although some other names also show up on the writer’s credits

In a little honky-tonky village in Texas
There’s a guy who plays the best piano by far
He can play piano any way that you like it
But the way he likes to play is eight to the bar
When he plays, it’s a ball
He’s the daddy of them all
The people gather around when he gets on the stand
Then when he plays, he gets a hand
The rhythm he beats puts the cats in a trance
Nobody there bothers to dance
But when he plays with the bass and guitar
They holler out, “Beat me Daddy, eight to the bar”

“Texas Fiddle Man” was written by fiddler Larry Franklin and he takes the lead vocals on this song, which features some extended fiddle solos. The folks at Alabama (the band) contributed the idea for the closing riffs.

The album concludes with “Pedernales Stroll” a gentle instrumental tribute to finger pickers such as Chet Atkins, Merle Travis. The song is the only instrumental on the album and as such, the perfect ending to an exciting album

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Midnight and Lonesome’

51BcEdcn+IL2002’s Midnight and Lonesome was Buddy Miller’s most successful solo album to date. It was the first to chart (reaching a modest #50), in no small part due to the success of the previous year’s duets project with wife Julie. He produced the album himself. He and Julie wrote some of the album’s songs, but separately and together but there are also a fair number of songs, including covers, provided by outside songwriters. Though mostly a country effort, it does find him delving into rock and blues, with somewhat mixed results. I was a bit worried after hearing the opening track, “The Price of Love”, a rock-leaning Everly Brothers tune with which I was previously unfamiliar. Fortunately, things get back on track with the second track “Wild Card”, which he and Julie wrote, which finds him turning up the twang. It sounds very much like a number Hank Williams might have recorded in the early 50s.

One of the album’s best moments is the third track “I Can’t Get Over You”, a beautiful steel-laced ballad written by Julie Miller, with delicately understated harmony vocals provided by Lee Ann Womack. It is topped only by another ballad – “A Showman’s Life”, written by Jesse Winchester. Previously recorded by Gary Allan with Willie Nelson and George Strait with Faith Hill, it describes the hardship and loneliness experienced by musicians on the road. Buddy is joined by Emmylou Harris and the result is nothing short of magic. It easily trumps both the Allan/Nelson and Strait/Hill versions (although both of those are also quite good).

The mournful lyrics and high-lonesome harmonies (provided by Julie) of the title track are at odds with its up-tempo pace but it works surprisingly well.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with “When It Comes To You”, a bluesy number written by Buddy and Julie with Jim Lauderdale. It sounds like something Conway Twitty might have scored a big hit with in the early 80s. It’s not a bad song but it is marred beyond redemption by the production. It has a decidedly low-fidelity sound; the vocals are muffled as though Buddy were singing through some sort of filter. I found it very distracting. Another bluesy number, a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, works much better. It’s a bit of an artistic stretch for Buddy, but one that pays off nicely. I’m not familiar with the original version and my first impression was that the melody was very similar to Ray Price’s “Night Life”.

The Cajun-flavored “Oh Fait Pitie D’Amour (Lord Have Mercy on Me)” provides another interesting change of pace, although it’s not particularly memorable.

Another highlight is the closing track “Quecreek”, an acoustic folk-leaning ballad which finds Buddy accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and Julie’s harmony vocals. Slightly reminiscent of Merle Travis’ classic “Dark as a Dungeon”, it tells the true story of a coal mining accident in Pennsylvania.. The nation waited with baited breath when nine miners were trapped for 77 hours between July 24 and July 28, 2002. Miraculously, all nine were rescued and Buddy’s emotional retelling of the ordeal likens their recovery to Christ’s Resurrection.

Midnight and Lonesome was nominated for Album of the Year in 2003 by the Americana Music Association. Though it did not win, it is a stellar collection (“The Price of Love” and “When It Comes to You” nothwithstanding). It is perhaps most accurately described as a roots album but country is the predominant influence.

Grade: A –

Reissues wish list part 4: Capitol Records

wanda jacksonThe final part of this series looks at recordings issued on Capitol Records. Capitol didn’t have its own budget label but would lease old recordings to Pickwick and Hilltop.

Capitol Records was the smallest of the big four labels. Co-founder Johnny Mercer, a noted songwriter and performer, intended the label to be artist-friendly and so its rosters were relatively small. The major country artists for Capitol were Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Ferlin Husky, Tex Ritter, Faron Young, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson (not really a major country star), The Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Freddie Hart and Gene Watson.

For whatever reason, most of the major Capitol artists are well represented on CD, whether through Capitol’s own reissues, or the efforts of foreign labels such as Ace, Bear Family and Jasmine. Among the Capitol artists listed above I would like to see more domestic re-issues on Faron Young, Charlie Louvin and Sonny James, but there is much product available even for them.

Kenny Dale was a fine singer who had a few hits reach as high as #11 on Billboard’s country charts (some of them, such as “Bluest Heartache Of The Year” reached #1 in some regional markets). While Capitol’s New Zealand affiliate issued a nice compilation (and Kenny has frequently performed ‘down under’) there has been nothing available domestically.

While Bobbie Gentry was a relatively minor presence in country music, a good two CD set of her material is needed as she had some success in the international markets along with her domestic hits.

The Hager Twins (aka Jim & Jon Hager) spent many years on the television show Hee Haw and toured with great success right up to the day Jim Hager died on May 1, 2008 (Jon died on January 9, 2009). While they never had great recording success, they remained a popular act and did chart a few records. The Hager Twins issued three albums on Capitol and it is likely, since most Capitol albums of the era ran 25-27 minutes in length, that all three could fit onto a single CD.

Hailing from Beaumont, Texas (home of George Jones), Billie Jo Spears was a fine artist who would have her biggest hits later while with United Artists and would enjoy great success with audiences in Great Britain and Ireland. While with Capitol, Billie Jo released six albums and a minimum of thirteen singles with one top ten single. I believe that Capitol, Liberty and United Artists now are all owned by the same conglomerate so it should be possible to take the Capitol Recordings and her eight United Artist and two Liberty albums and make a really nice three or four CD set.

Tony Booth would be on my wish list; however, Heart of Texas Records has reissued all six of Tony’s early 1970s albums on three CDs, as well as some recent recordings. Tony stayed in the business as a front man for Gene Watson, and perhaps others. He is a very fine singer.

On the other hand, other than two now out-of print anthologies, nothing has been released on Susan Raye other than her duets with Buck Owens. A good two CD set should suffice for her.

After knocking around the business as a songwriter and an excellent journeyman performer for over fifteen years, “Easy Loving” propelled Freddie Hart to superstar status for the better part of a decade. Already 43 years old when “Easy Loving” hit #1, while with Capitol Freddie had six #1 records, five more that reached the top three, three more top ten singles and a bunch more chart records to go long with eighteen albums (and a hits collection). Freddie is fully worth a boxed set of 60-80 songs based on his Capitol years alone.

Gene Watson still is very active as a touring and recording artist. While he is still in great voice and issuing terrific albums, his commercial peak occurred during his years with Capitol Records. Gene released seven albums and two hits collections while with Capitol. The British Hux label issued six of the albums on two-fers, but the albums should be released domestically. Capitol should release all three albums on a three CD set and there wouldn’t be a bad song in the bunch.

Mel McDaniel was a journeyman artist with a few big hits and a bunch of lower charting records that were good recordings but that have never been collected in digital form. There is a hits collection with ten or twelve songs on it, and some minor labels have issued re-recordings of some of his hits along with some extraneous new material. What is needed is a two CD set covering all of his 40+ Capitol chart records. Although they weren’t big radio hits, songs such as “Love Lies”, “Play Her Back To Yesterday”, “Hello Daddy, Good Morning Darling”, “Henrietta” and “Blue Suede Blues” are all worth preserving.

Most people identify Wanda Jackson as a Rock & Roll or Rockabilly artist rather than a country artist and that fact may have impaired her career as a country artist. That said, she had a substantial country career as a performer and released at least fifteen country albums while with Capitol. There have been a few decent Wanda Jackson country anthologies, mostly on foreign labels but a really good box set of 80-100 country recordings is warranted. Wanda Jackson Salutes The Country Music Hall of Fame is one of my favorite albums and none of its tracks have made it to a digital format.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Merle Travis – ‘Sixteen Tons’

Classic Rewind: Merle Travis – ‘John Henry’

Spotlight Artist: Pam Tillis

pamtillisBeing related to a famous country entertainer can be a mixed blessing. Although the family ties can open doors for the aspiring singer, they can also serve to set unrealistic expectations. Just ask Roy Acuff Jr., Ronnie Robbins (billed as Marty Robbins, Jr.), The Lynns (daughters of Loretta Lynn), Riley Coyle (daughter of Jeannie C. Riley), Pake McEntire (Reba’s brother), Jay Lee Webb (Loretta Lynn’s brother), Peggy Sue (Loretta Lynn’s sister), and Hillman Hall (Tom T. Hall’s brother), each of whom issued an album or two and then disappeared. John Carter Cash has avoided the problem entirely by working behind the scenes.

Then there are those who achieve modest success and carve out respectable careers but never achieve top-drawer status, such as Shelly West (daughter of Dottie West), David Frizzell (brother of Lefty Frizzell), Tommy Cash (brother of Johnny Cash), Carlene Carter (daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter) and Thom Bresh (son of Merle Travis). Jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, son of country stars Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, might have fit into this category had he not died young.

True superstar success for those with famous kinfolk is indeed rare. The three biggest that come to mind are Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister), Lynn Anderson (the daughter of songwriter Casey & singer-songwriter Liz Anderson) and Hank Williams Jr. Pulling up behind these three are George Morgan’s daughter Lorrie, Rosanne Cash and this month’s spotlight artist, Pam Tillis.

Pamela Yvonne Tillis was born on July 24, 1957 in Plant City, Florida, the daughter of singer-songwriter-actor-comedian Mel Tillis.

As the daughter of one of the best-known songwriters around, and living in Nashville, Tillis was exposed to the elite of the country music industry even before her father had achieved recording star status. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of eight in an appearance with her father singing “Tom Dooley.” She grew up wanting to be a performer and tried her hand at songwriting at an early age and also found some work as a background singer. The results of an automobile accident at age 16 derailed her career for a while as several years of reconstructive facial surgery were needed to restore her appearance. Following her surgeries, Tillis enrolled at the University of Tennessee; then later at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, forming her first band. Since her only real interest was music, she eventually dropped out of college to pursue her own musical career.

Wanting to make it “on her own,” Tillis went to San Francisco where she joined a jazz-rock band Freelight.

After tiring of the San Francisco scene, she returned to Nashville and found work as a demo singer. She signed with Warner Brothers. in 1982, where she took a shot at pop success. Her sole album for Warner Brothers was Above and Beyond The Doll of Cutey. During the period between 1983 and ’87, Warner Brothers would issue at least eight singles on Tillis, five of which charted on Billboard’s Country chart, although none made the Top 50–not surprising since they were not being marketed as country singles. Unreleased were early versions of several of her later hits, which were released after she achieved success.

During this period, Tillis signed on as a staff songwriter with Tree Publishing in Nashville, where she shifted her focus to contemporary country music and achieved much success as a songwriter, with artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor, Conway Twitty, Holly Dunn, Juice Newton, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Dan Seals, and Highway 101 recording her songs.

Her visibility was greatly improved when she started making regular appearances on shows aired on the late lamented Nashville Network, especially on Nashville Now, a nightly variety show hosted by Ralph Emery. By 1991 she had signed with Arista Records, where her career took off. For part of this period (until 1998) she was married to fellow songwriter Bob DiPiero.

The Arista years saw Tillis emerge as a steady and reliable hit-maker as the following list demonstrates:

•“Don’t Tell Me What To Do” / “Melancholy Child” – #5 (1990)

•“One Of Those Things” / “Already Fallen – #6 (1991)

•“Put Yourself In My Place” / “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” – #11 (1991)

•“Maybe It Was Memphis” / “Draggin’ My Chains” – #3 (1991)

•“Blue Rose Is” / “Ancient History” – #21 (1992)

•“Shake The Sugar Tree” / “Maybe It Was Memphis” #3 (1992)

•“Let That Pony Run” / “Fine Fine Very Fine Love” – #4 (1992)

•“Cleopatra Queen Of Denial” / “Homeward Looking Angel” – #11 (1993)

•“Do You Know Where Your Man Is” / “We’ve Tried Everything Else” – #16 (1993)

•“Spilled Perfume” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #5 (1994)

•“When You Walk In The Room” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #2 (1994)

•“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)” / “Ancient History” – #1 (1994)

•“I Was Blown Away” / “Calico Plains” – #16 (1995)

•“In Between Dances” / “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” – #3 (1995)

•“Deep Down” / “Tequila Mockingbird” – #6 (1995)

•“River And The Highway” / “All Of This Love” – #8 (1996)

•“It’s Lonely Out There” / “You Can’t Have A Good Time Without Me” – #14 (1996)

•“All The Good Ones Are Gone” / “Land Of The Living” – #4 (1997)

•“I Said A Prayer” / “Lay The Heartache Down” – #12 (1998)

•“Every Time” / “You Put The Lonely On Me” – #38 (1998)

After 1998, the hits started drying up as the next wave of young performers arrived.

Tillis’ Arista albums were generally quite successful, starting with 1991’s Put Yourself In My Place which had three Top 10 hits in lead single, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “One of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis.” The album ultimately reached gold status.

Her 1992 follow-up Homeward Looking Angel was equally successful, with “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Let That Pony Run” reaching the Top 5. Homeward Looking Angel reached platinum status. In 1993, she won her first major award: the CMA Awards’ Vocal Event of the Year with George Jones and Friends for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”

In 1994, her third Arista album, Sweetheart’s Dance, was released, reaching #6 on the Billboard’s Country Album chart (her highest placement). Singles “Spilled Perfume” and “When You Walk in the Room” both became Top 5 hits and she had her only #1, “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” helping push the album to platinum status.

Issued in late 1996, All of This Love, became Tillis’ last gold non-compilation album. The only single to reach Top 10 status was “The River and The Highway.” It was the first album she produced on her own.

In 1997, Arista released her first (actually only) Greatest Hits album. The compilation featured two new tracks, both released as singles: “All the Good Ones Are Gone” and “The Land of the Living,” both of which reached the Top 5 in 1997. This collection also went platinum.

After 1997, the country music market shifted, becoming more youth-oriented and less country, with a resultant drop in both chart and sales success for Tillis. Her 1998 album Every Time featured “I Said A Prayer”, which just missed the Top 10 and was her last Top 20 single. Her last Arista album, issued in 2001, Thunder & Roses performed reasonably well on the album chart (both it and Every Time reached #24) but generated no real hit singles.

Since 1998 Pam Tillis has remained active, both in live appearances, occasionally performing with her father Mel, and occasionally recording. She became a Grand Ole Opry member in 2000, which was several years before her father, and had the honor of inducting him into Opry membership. She has tried her hand at acting, both on stage and on television, with considerable success.

She still records occasionally. In 2002 she fulfilled a lifetime dream of recording an album of songs written by or associated with her father. Titled It’s All Relative, the album found Pam ignoring the Mel Tillis template and giving her own interpretation of her father’s material, most notably on “Heart Over Mind”.

She started her own record label, Stellar Cat, and issued her album Rhinestoned under that imprint in 2007. One of the singles from the album, “Band In The Window,” earned considerable acclaim, although the album ultimately yielded no hits.

All told, Pam Tillis had over 30 chart records including 13 Top 10s. In 1994 she was named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year. In 1999, she earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. When CMT did their countdown of the 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002, Tillis ranked at #30. Kevin Coyne of Country Universe ranked her at #35 in his 100 Greatest Women of Country Music countdown in 2008.

Discography

With the exception of the Warner Brothers album, which originally was issued on vinyl and audio cassette, all of Tillis’ subsequent recordings have been released on CD. Most of the titles remain in print, others can be located used with a little bit of effort. Unlike country singers from generations before, the Pam Tillis catalog is fairly shallow with a total of a dozen original studio albums, plus some anthologies (Greatest Hits, Super Hits, Best Of, etc.) and whatever unreleased tracks may be lying around in somebody’s vault. Accordingly, collecting a fairly complete Pam Tillis collection isn’t that difficult, especially since her Warner Brothers debut recently was reissued on CD by Wounded Bird. All of her post-Warner Brothers albums are worthwhile and even her debut album (which I originally purchased on vinyl) has its moments.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has seven of her albums available as well as several anthologies.

There is a need for a decent two-disc set containing about 40 of her songs. Lately, the German label Bear Family has been issuing some less-than-exhaustive sets. Maybe they will step up to the plate –she’s worth a decent anthology.

Pam Tillis is still actively performing – you can catch  up with her at her website http://www.pamtillis.com/ . She does have some product for sale there as digital downloads including a Christmas album and a duet single (with Kris Thomas)  titled “Two Kings” which is about Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her long-awaited duet album with Lorrie Morgan comes out later this month.

Classic Rewind: Merle Travis – ‘I Am A Pilgrim’

Classic Rewind: Merle Travis – ‘Dark As A Dungeon’

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Sweet Temptation’

Ricky Skaggs’ debut for Sugar Hill Records, Sweet Temptation was Skaggs’ second album overall when it was released in 1979. The album features backing vocals from Emmylou Harris, and is influenced sonically by her solo efforts.

The Carter Stanley composition “I’ll Take The Blame” was the album’s sole single reaching #86. A gorgeous stone cold traditional country ballad, it features Harris prominently on backing vocals and the overall track rests on the high twang of their vocals, a hit or miss depending on the style of country you find most appealing. I happen to love the bluegrass twang, but can see where others may not be able to warm up to it.

“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” collaboration by Lester Flatt, John Hartford and Bill Monroe is another fiddle centric ballad, this time finding our protagonist mending a broken heart by crying out his pain in his cabin home. This bluegrass tune is stellar, as Skaggs and Harris’ vocals blend seamlessly and the mournful fiddle echoes the ache felt by the main character.

The fiddle also takes center stage on “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” co-written by Dolly Parton and Bill Owens. Parton released the tune herself three years later as a duet with Kris Kristofferson from a double album entitled The Winning Hand, a project consisting of unreleased tracks on the Monument label. Skaggs’ version once again finds Harris on backing vocals, and the tune straddles the space between country and bluegrass, finding a nice home somewhere in the middle. I like the subdued atmosphere of Skaggs’ version the best although Parton provides a nice prospective by flipping the gender roles.

Skaggs keeps Sweet Temptation alive with a few banjo and dobro centric tunes in the middle of the album. “Baby I’m In Love With You” is a fabulously plucky love song that takes after old-time country, Stanley’s “Baby Girl” is a delightful traditional bluegrass thumper, while “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome” has a wonderfully fast acoustic arrangement that doesn’t quite fit with the sad themes of the song and Skaggs’ vocals are a rare misstep as he sings the track in too high a key. Skaggs rectifies this on “I’ll Stay Around,” another traditional bluegrass tune that ranks among my favorite tracks on the album.

The title track written by Cliffie Stone and Merle Travis is another masterful tune and an album highlight. I love everything about the song from the wonderful combination of dobro and steel that lead the arrangement, to Skaggs’ pitch perfect vocals. Travis also sang the song, (his version can be heard HERE), but I much prefer the vibrancy Skaggs brings to the song.

The quietest song on the album, Stanley’s “Could You Love Me On More Time” puts Skaggs’ vocal front and center, backing him solely with an acoustic guitar. In lesser hands this naked approach could’ve been disastrous, but Skaggs pulls it off with effortless ease.

The most blatantly country track on the project is “Forgive Me,” which Wayne Walker wrote with G. Paul Sullivan. Another stellar tune, it somewhat foreshadows the direction Skaggs would take in the 80s, when he became a genre superstar. It’s another standout track on the album.

What surprises me about Sweet Temptation is the level in which Skaggs knows himself as an artist. He was only in his early 20s in 1979 and yet he sang with a confidence of someone twice to three times his age. This keeps Sweet Temptation from sounding like a less then project, an early representation of an artist still learning where he fits in the country music landscape. Instead its essential listening from an artist who hadn’t yet hit his prime, although you wouldn’t know that from listening to this.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

Kathleen Alice (Kathy) Mattea was born June 21, 1959, in South Charleston, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and steeped in the lore and culture of the coal mines. While some think of her as a country singer and others regard her as folk, bluegrass or neo-Celtic, I prefer to think of Kathy Mattea as a quintessentially American singer and just leave it at that.

While Kathy had an extended run of top-twenty chart success running from 1986 to early 1993, Kathy’s records became increasingly more interesting once the focus on chart success subsided and she focused more on music she found interesting. With Coal, Kathy reached her career apogee, at least as far as artistic success is concerned.

Coal has always been a subject of great interest, whether to folklorists, economists or politicians. Coal is one of America’s greatest natural resources and the source of heated debate on how to mine it, how to utilize it and indeed whether or not to mine and utilize it all. While I have always been either an urban or suburban dweller, my grandfather, Otto Jetzork, was a coal miner who died at the young age of forty-three from “black lung” disease, so at a young age I started reading about coal miners and coal miners.

Ms. Mattea selected an excellent group of songs for her album and an excellent group of pickers including Marty Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Byron House (acoustic bass).

The lead-off track is “The L&N Don’t Stop Here In Anymore”, a Jean Ritchie composition that some may remember as the title track of a New Coon Creek Girls album from 1994. Quite a few artists have recorded the song including Johnny Cash. Kathy does an excellent job with the song which, with slightly modified lyrics, could apply to the fate of many company towns, whatever the industry

I was born and raised at the mouth of Hazard Hollow
The coal cars rolled and rumbled past my door
But now they stand in a rusty row all empty
Because the L & N don’t stop here anymore

This is followed by another Jean Ritchie song, “Blue Diamond Mines”. I think I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do this song on the radio but I wasn’t very familiar with the song; since I find Jean Ritchie’s voice rather annoying I’ve tended to avoid her recordings. Given the quality of these two songs, I may reconsider and seek out some of her recordings. Kathy, as always, is excellent. This track features vocal harmony by another Kentucky girl, Patty Loveless:

You old black gold you’ve taken my lung
Your dust has darkened my home
And now I am old and you’ve turned your back
Where else can an old miner go

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind – Mother Maybelle Carter – ‘Wildwood Flower’

A truly special performance from the pioneer who helped define our modern definition of Country Music. Included here is rare footage of her discussing the famed Bristol Sessions from 1927, known as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” Those sessions featured her, A.P., and Sara Carter (The Carter Family) along with Jimmie Rogers and others.

The song she sings here, “Wildwood Flower” was written circa 1860 with lyrics by  Maud Irving and music by Joseph Philbrick Webster. The original title of the song was “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.” It became an American standard when The Carter Family recorded it on the Victor label in 1928.

“Wildwood Flower” would see a second life when Hank Thompson and Merle Travis recorded it as an instrumental in 1955. Their version would peak at #5 on the charts that year.

Actress Reece Witherspoon also has a version of the song, performing it in the film Walk The Line. She won The Best Actress Oscar for portraying June Carter Cash (Mother Maybelle’s daughter) in the 2005 film.

Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 68.

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Country Heritage Redux: Lecil Martin, King of the Hobos (1931 – 1999)

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

It is unlikely that any modern country performer will ever have a career quite like that of Lecil Travis “Boxcar Willie” Martin. Dressed in the attire of a railroad hobo and blessed with a unique ability to imitate the sounds of train whistles, Boxcar Willie carried on the grand tradition of country music on the Grand Ole Opry without ever having a hit record. While comedians, such as Mike Snider, occasionally became Opry members without having hit records on their resume, the induction of Boxcar Willie as an Opry member in 1981 marked the last time a singer was inducted without a hit (excluding the later induction of Beecher Ray “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, who had been performing on the Opry stage for over 50 years as part of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys).

Born near Ovilla, Texas, Boxcar Willie had a career behind him before finding real success as a country music star–this after turning 50 years old. Although he adopted a railroad persona for his stage act, unlike Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, one of his idols, Boxcar Willie never worked on the railroads, although his father had been a railroad man, for whom Jimmie Rodgers had worked. Like many of his generation, Willie loved the railroads and ran away from home to ride the trains as a lad and like many from small towns and rural settings, he loved country music, particularly the then-current songs of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Merle Travis. As a teenager, he would perform under his given name, eventually becoming a regular on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas. In 1949 he served in the the United States Air Force and became a pilot and flight engineer for the B-29 Super Fortress during the Korean War. Both during his Air Force Career (which, according to some sources, lasted in some capacity until 1976) and after he left the service, he performed in clubs and on local radio shows. In the late 1950s, he began performing as Marty Martin. During this period he issued an album titled Marty Martin Sings Country Music and Stuff Like That, which he sold at live performances.

In 1962, Willie met his life-long love, Lloene. They married shortly thereafter and had four children.

The name Boxcar Willie apparently has its origins in a comment he made about an employee named Willie Wilson. According to one version of the story, the singer was sitting at a railroad crossing when a freight train passed by with a fellow who resembled Wilson sitting down in an open boxcar. Willie wrote a song titled “Boxcar Willie” and over time, adopted the song title as his stage name.

In 1976, Willie became a full-time entertainer. His big break came while he was playing at the Silver Saddle in Grand Prairie Texas. The agent for George Jones saw him and invited him to perform at George’s club in Nashville, The Possum Hollow. During a performance in Nashville, Willie was spotted by Drew Taylor, a Scottish booking agent who thought that the singer’s very traditional approach to country music would be well received by British audiences. This proved quite true, with Willie appearing at venues in Britain throughout the late 1970s, culminating in a performance at the Wembley International Country Music Festival in 1979. This performance, seen live by thousands and by many more on British television, established Boxcar Willie as the “King of the Hobos.” His album, King of the Road, became a huge success in England, reaching number five on the album charts aided by a clever television ad campaign which sold the record through the mail.
A similar advertising campaign was run in the United States for a double album set, with similar results (similarly successful telemarketing campaigns also worked for Zamfir and Slim Whitman). The end result was that Boxcar Willie became a successful recording artist selling millions of albums but without any real hit singles. Although he charted 10 singles, only his cover of “Bad News” cracked the top forty, reaching #36 in 1982.

The success of the television advertising campaign propelled Boxcar Willie to Grand Old Opry membership, where he became enormously popular with Opry patrons and fellow artists alike. After Roy Acuff’s death in November 1992, Boxcar Willie became the standard-bearer for traditional country music at the Opry, frequently performing classic Acuff songs such as “Wabash Cannonball” and “Night Train to Memphis.”

In 1985, Willie moved to Branson (while still remaining a member of the Grand Old Opry) where he purchased Highway 76 (a/k/a Country Music Boulevard) which he renamed the Boxcar Willie Theater. Willie operated successfully from his theater for the next thirteen-plus years. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia in late 1996. He continued to perform at his theater on a limited basis until his death on April 12, 1999 at the age of 67.

The Boxcar Willie Inn built by Boxcar Willie in Branson, Missouri still bears his name today.

Discography

For a fellow without any substantial radio airplay, Boxcar Willie issued quite a few albums in his lifetime and made guest appearances on numerous albums of other artists, most notably on the Hank Williams Jr. album The Pressure Is On. Hank referenced Boxcar Willie by name in the song lyrics of “Rambling In My Shoes.” Willie contributes vocals and train whistle sounds to the track.

Vinyl

Column One Records issued four LPs from 1977-1980. These were Boxcar Willie (1977), Daddy Was A Railroad Man (1978), Sings Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers (1979), and Take Me Home (1980). Other than the Hank/Jimmie tribute, these albums are mostly original material, much of it written by the artist himself.

The album that started the good times rolling for Boxcar Willie was King of The Road (1980), issued in Great Britain on Warwick Records. In the United States, the over-the-counter version issued on the Main Street label sold enough copies to reach #54 on the country charts but this does not include the estimated 2 million copies sold via television. If Billboard had possessed the ability then to track mail order sales, this particular album might have reached #1 on both the pop and country charts. Main Street issued several other albums, some of which reached album chart mid-levels. Unlike King of The Road and Best Loved Favorites (1980), which were all cover material, Last Train To Heaven (1982, BB #27), Best of Boxcar (1982, BB #34), and Not The Man I Used To Be (1984, BB #35) contained more original material.

CD

Much of Box’s vinyl product has been reissued on CD. His only major label recording was for Dot Records, titled simply Boxcar Willie. It is all original material, including two duets with Willie Nelson and one with Carol Lee Cooper and has been reissued on the MCA label.

Probably the most interesting CD was Rocky Box, a 1993 CD recorded with the roots-rock group the Skeletons (who sometimes called themselves the Morrells). This album features a mix of 50s rockabilly and rock ‘n roll hits, plus an interesting take on “Achy Breaky Heart,” a recent (very minor) hit for the Marcy Brothers and then a monster for Billy Ray Cyrus.

A wide range of products can be purchased at his website , which features 17 album titles available on CD & Cassette, plus videos and souvenirs.

Album Review – Dolly Parton – ‘9 To 5 and Odd Jobs’

After her pervious album Dolly, Dolly, Dolly failed to fall in the good graces of her fans, Parton returned later that year with an album displaying what she does best – recording a mix of self-penned material and well-chosen covers. Heralded as a concept album about work, 9 to 5 is a companion piece to the movie of the same name in which Parton made her acting debut.

When the title track was released as a single in November of 1980, the trademark fusion of piano and horns meshed together to create one of country music’s campiest records. I’ve always enjoyed the individuality of this song, when it comes on the radio it’s unmistakable. And what amazes me, is the song doesn’t sound dated. The production is as timeless today (more than 30 years later) as the theme of getting your butt out of bed to work an eight-hour day.  It’s also among my favorites of Parton’s singles because it dared to be different. Like “On The Other Hand” and “Any Man of Mine,” it reinvented the notion of what a country song could be. (How often do you hear a typewriter on recorded music?) While it didn’t change the course of country music like the Travis and Twain singles, it added to the lineage of working people songs and employed the woman’s point of view for a change. The men have Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” while the workingwomen’s anthem is “9 To 5.”

Parton garnered two Grammy Awards for “9 to 5” in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Song categories. She would also be nominated for her first Oscar, losing to the title song from “Fame.” The album would eventually be certified gold for shipments of 500,000 copies. In another feat, “9 to 5” would mark only the second time a female country artist would top the Billboard Hot Country Songs and Hot 100 charts with the same single. (The first was Jeannie C. Riley and “Harper Valley PTA”).

Listening to the album, the title track plus “Sing for the Common Man,” “Working Girl,” and “Poor Folks Town” all fit the “working” theme but I’d hardly regard this as a concept album. Instead, it’s an above average pop/country fusion that leaned heavily on the pop influences. Unlike the pop-country of today however, producer Mike Post smartly kept the production soft so the listener could appreciate the lyrical content of the tracks. I have nothing wrong with pop-leaning country music as long as its good, and 9 to 5 is just that.

Post leaned heavy on muscular guitars to give the album a more rock feel and it works. Gone are the soft string-filled arrangements from the 1970s that almost put the listener to sleep, and in its place is a livelier sound that works with Parton’s voice, and her personality as well. Tracks such as “Hush A-Bye Hard Times,” “The House of the Rising Sun” (a #14 peaking single for Parton), “Working Girl” and “Poor Folks Town” all fit this theme perfectly. The varying degree of rock production on these tracks command the listener’s attention, but “Sun” could’ve done without the gospel choir. It was interesting to hear that song with such full production as I’m used to more intimate renditions, especially from American Idol contestants. I kept thinking classic Abba when listening to that track, which may or may not be a good thing on an album from a country singer, but since I generally like the 70s Swedish group, it didn’t bother me.

As for the ballads, my favorite track on the album was also the most perplexing. The inclusion of “Dark as a Dungeon,” Merle Travis’s masterpiece about working in the mines, didn’t sit well with me in terms of placement. The only way I can justify its inclusion is it fits the working theme in that there are people who make their living working in mines. But such a dark song didn’t seem right on such a sunny album. But as a recorded track, “Dungeon” is the closest thing to hinting at Parton’s country roots on the whole album, and the light production suits her voice and is a welcome reminder that Parton is still a country girl at heart.

The other standout ballad, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” hints at the influence Emmylou Harris had on the genre at the time. To me, it sounds just like a cover tune she would’ve placed on any of her 70s masterpieces, and acts almost as a foreshadowing of the two working together on the Trio projects. The mix of light piano and acoustic guitar complements Parton’s vocals perfectly and proves that less is often so much more.

Other tracks “But You Know I love You” (another #1 country hit) and “Detroit City” are also very good with “Love You” being my favorite of the two. I honestly don’t have much familiarity with the latter, the Mel Tillis penned, Bobby Bare classic, so I have nothing to compare it to, but Parton does an okay job with a song I believe is usually done more understated. It’s an example of where the rock arraignment fell short. The heavy guitars didn’t fit the song.

Overall, 9 To 5 and Odd Jobs is a very solid album from Parton. She sings the fire out of the songs and proved to me why she belongs as one of country music’s greatest female singers. I thought a couple of the tracks ended too quickly, but this was back then when two-minute songs were still popular. This time around, there’s nothing offensive about the song choices, lyrical content, or production. If you only know the title track, I would urge you to go ahead and pick up the album. It’s well worth the listen but skip the bonus tracks in the 2009 reissue. “Everyday People” is a bit too loud and brash in comparison to the rest of the project, and the two remixes of the title track are pointless drivel in comparison to the original. These three additions are not worth the download, if you don’t already have them.

Grade: A- 

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs is readily available from Amazon in both hard copy and download form, and on iTunes. 

Classic Rewind: Molly Bee, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Merle Travis – ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke And Loud Loud Music’

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

I’ll confess that I’ve had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year — a bluegrass album and a “regular” country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly “pure” bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today’s market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I’m not a bluegrass purist; I’m not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss’ usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I’d had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as “Fiddlin’ Around” and “You’re Dead To Me” and more progressive fare such as “Fallin’ For You” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional “Rovin’ Gambler” as well as the aforementioned “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on “Pride”. The Punch Brothers are a band that I’m going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album’s twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote “Bad Angel” along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition “Bottle To The Bottom”. Closing out the album is “Down In The Mine”, one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It’s reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon.” Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up On The Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan.

Up On The Ridge is available at retail stores, as well as at Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A