My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Merle Watson

Album Review: Old Crow Medicine Show – ‘Remedy’

remedyThe rowdy string band Old Crow Medicine Show best known for ‘Wagon Wheel’ have released their latest studio album.

The album is bookended by two songs with a prison theme. The opening ‘Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ is typical OCMS fare, with a jovially shouted vocal from leader Ketch Secor, catchy tune, cheerfully strummed instruments (plus harmonica), and is quite entertaining with its light hearted story of a conjugal visit from a prisoner’s wife. The closing ‘The Warden’ is more somber. The prisoners question their gaoler’s emotions and potential feelings of guilt:

Down in this pen full of sorrow and sin
Do the days weigh on his chest?
When the warden goes home
To his house made of stone
How does he get any rest?

How does the warden sleep at night
After the long day’s through
Does he toss and turn?
Does his conscience burn?
Is he a prisoner too?

Oh warden. dear warden
Are you so different from me?
Hey warden, mmm, warden
What does it mean to be free?

This is a very fine song with a perfect stripped down arrangement and simple but extremely effective harmonies.

‘Dearly Departed Friend’ is a nicely observed description of the funeral of a young soldier killed in the army, from the viewpoint of a friend and fellow soldier. It is reminiscent of Tom T. Hall, with a gently melancholic feel. This is very moving indeed, and perhaps the best song on the record.

Also very good, ‘Firewater’ is a wearied confession to God of a man’s fall from churchgoer to the homelessness and degradation of helpless alcoholism, written by the band’s Critter Fuqua:

It’s a mean ol’ world when you get to the gutter
And the firewater is the one thing that put out the flame

A gentle melody is sweet to the ears, but the message as bitter and dark as it gets.

In contrast, ‘8 Dogs, 8 Banjos’ opens with a dog’s barking and swings into a fast paced bluegrass number. The lyric is rather rudimentary with its listing of things bringing pleasure, and the vocals are mostly shouted. It probably works better live than on record. ‘Shit Creek’ also very fast, so fast it’s tricky to decipher the lyrics, although there seems to be an interesting story buried in there.

‘Sweet Amarillo’ is more conventional and quite likable. Like Wagon Wheel it is a Bob Dylan co-write, although it lacks ‘Wagon Wheel’s infectious charm and the rhymes are a bit simplistic (e.g. Sweet Amarillo/tears on my pillow/weeping willow). The influence of Bob Dylan is also strong on the harmonica-led ‘Mean Enough World’, an idealistic plea for peace and understanding.
‘Doc’s Day’ is a charming tribute to another influence of the band – the legendary Doc and Merle Watson.

There are a couple of older songs included from the dawn of recorded music, when country was coalescing as a genre from folk and traditional music. The optimistic ‘Tennessee Bound’ has a charmingly authentic old-time feel. ‘Sweet Home’ is a cheery gospel tune which is also enjoyable.

‘O Cumberland River’ is quite a pleasant ode to the river which runs through Nashville. Finally the raucous ‘Brave Boys’ has a Celtic feel; the playing is more impressive here than the vocals.

This record won’t be for everyone – particularly not for anyone who sets a lot of store on high quality vocals. But there’s a lot of substance here which is worth pursuing.

Grade: A-

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: Marty Stuart – ‘Busy Bee Cafe’

It’s common to hear today’s singers speak about their country roots, but it’s relatively rare to come across an artist who not only talks the talk but walks the walk as Marty Stuart has done. He was already a seasoned veteran at the age of 24 when his second solo album, 1982’s Busy Bee Cafe, was released. Instead of using the album as a platform to propel himself to stardom, he seems to content to share the spotlight with the many guest artists — Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Carl Jackson and Jerry Douglas — who contributed to the project. It perhaps should have been billed as an album by “Marty Stuart and Friends”. An acoustic and heavily bluegrass-flavored collection, it seems like an odd choice for a young artist trying to make his breakthrough. Instead, it appears to be one of those rare projects made for the love of the music, without much regard for commercial considerations.

The album contains a few traditional numbers, a few written by Marty himself, and a few more written by his musical mentors Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash. Cash lends his vocals to three tracks — the album opener “One More Ride”, Lester Flatt’s “Get In Line Brother” and a remake of Cash’s 1954 hit “Hey Porter”. All three songs are billed as duets, but Cash’s vocal is much more prominent than Marty’s on “One More Ride”. “Hey Porter” is strictly a Cash vehicle; Stuart’s voice can only be heard occasionally as he gives shout-outs to the other musicians playing on the track. “Get In Line Brother” is arranged more as a vocal quartet, with Cash again dominating. Marty’s voice can be heard, but it is overwhelmed by Cash and the other two uncredited singers. Marty’s singing is more prominent on tracks like “Blue Railroad Train”, “Busy Bee Cafe”, and “Down The Road” — which features the unmistakable banjo-picking of Earl Scruggs — but he sounds very little like the singer we’re familiar with today. His voice is not as strong, nor his style as distinct. The only glimpse of the singer who would one day break through with “Hillbilly Rock” is the album’s closing track, the rockabilly-flavored “Long Train Gone.”

Though Stuart was yet to fully blossom as vocalist at the time of this album’s release, this project is more noteworthy for the picking than the singing, as evidenced in its several instrumental tracks such as “I Don’t Love Nobody”, “Watson’s Blues”, “Soldier’s Joy”, and “Boogie For Clarence”. The entire project has a feel of a bunch of friends sitting around the living room and just letting the music happen. It won’t appeal to those who don’t like bluegrass or instrumental music, but it will be very much enjoyed by those who do.

Grade: B+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s, Part 8

Here are some more songs that I like; one song per artist, not necessarily his or her biggest hit. As always, I consider myself free to comment on other songs by the artist.

Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” – Billy Joe “B.J.” Thomas (1975)
His biggest country hit reached #1 and also topped the pop charts. Despite his long-time appeal to country audiences this song was his first to chart country.

Next Time I Fall In Love (I Won’t)” – Hank Thompson (1971)
This song got to #15, Hank’s 59th chart hit. Hank never lost his vocal chops. Hank charted records from 1948 to 1983, a total of seventy-nine songs, including two top tens in “The Older The Violin, The Sweeter The Music” and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open”. Hank Thompson was so highly regarded in his day that George Strait made one of his very few guest appearances on one of Hank’s albums.

Smooth Sailin’”/ “Last Cheater’s Waltz” – Sonny Throckmorton (1976)
Sonny wasn’t much of a singer and this record only reached #47. He was, however, one heck of a songwriter, and T. G. Sheppard took both of these songs into the top ten. His most famous copyright probably is “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again” which was a major hit for George Burns in 1980.

What Time of Day” – Billy ThunderKloud & The Chieftones (1975)
Billy and his group were native Indian musicians from Northwest British Columbia. This song reached #16, the biggest of their five chart hits.

“Midnight, Me and the Blues” – Mel Tillis (1974)
Just a song I happened to like, one of 24 top ten hits Mel would chart during the 70s. This song reached #2, one of twelve top ten hits on MGM. Mel had a long career in country music, with a recording career that saw chart records from 1958-1989, but he was never better than during his years with MGM.

It’s A Man’s World” – Diana Trask (1973)
Australian born singer, first charted in 1968 with “Lock Stock and Tear Drops.” This record reached #20, one of four top twenty hits.

“I’ve Got All The Heartaches I Can Handle” – Ernest Tubb (1973)
The last MCA/Decca chart hit for the legendary Texas Troubadour. This record only reached #93 for the then 59 year-old Tubb. His recording career was kaput by this time, but not his legacy. This wasn’t quite the end of his recording career as he charted several more songs on other labels, the most noteworthy being “Leave Them Boys Alone” (with Hank Williams, Jr. and Waylon Jennings) which reached #6 in 1983.

As long as there’s a honky-tonk, people will play “Set Up Two Glasses, Joe,” “Waltz Across Texas” and “Walking The Floor Over You.”

Delta Dawn” – Tanya Tucker (1972)
What else? Record World had this record reach #1 (Billboard #6/Cashbox #3). Tanya’s recordings through the end of 1974 are sometimes described as “American Gothic’s last stand.”

Sometimes” – Mary Lou Turner & Bill Anderson (1976)
This record reached #1 in early 1976, one of only two top ten records for Ms. Turner, both of them duets with “Whispering Bill” Anderson.

This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me” – Conway Twitty (1976)
One of many #1 records Conway would enjoy during this decade. Yes, I know “Hello Darlin’“ was the biggie, but Conway had many records I liked better, including “I See The Want To In Your Eyes,” “I Can’t See Me Without You” and “How Much More Can She Stand.”

“Johnny One Time” – Kathy Twitty (1976)
This cover of a minor Willie Nelson hit works, but Kathy is not a compelling singer. The label on the 45 has her billed as ‘Jessica James.’ Kathy had three charting singles.

It’s a Heartache” – Bonnie Tyler (1978)
Raspy-voiced pop singer from Wales, this song reached #10 on the country charts, selling a million copies in the process.

Just When I Needed You Most” – Randy Vanwarmer (1979)
A few country stations gave this song some airplay, enabling it to reach #71 en route to selling a million copies.

“Until The End of Time” – Sharon Vaughn with Narvel Felts (1974)
Sharon isn’t a great singer and had much more success as a songwriter than as a performer. Narvel Felts, however, is a great singer and he salvages the record. This record was Sharon Vaughn’s only top 40 hit.

What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” – Porter Wagoner (1972)
Hard as it is to believe, this was Porter’s last solo top 10 recording, reaching #8 on Billboard and #6 on Cashbox. Another interesting record for Porter during this period is “The Rubber Room,” a record which Billboard failed to chart, but which spent seven weeks on Cashbox’s country chart (just missing the top 40).

When A Man Loves A Woman (The Way That I Love You)” – Billy Walker (1970)
Billy was never a dominant chart performer but he did have three consecutive singles reach #3 in 1970-71 and continued to have occasional top forty singles until 1975. In 1975, Billy signed with RCA–his short stint there produced “Word Games,” Billy’s last top ten single and one of my favorites.

Odds And Ends (Bits And Pieces)” – Charlie Walker (1974)
By 1974, it had been seven years since Charlie had a top 20 single. This was Charlie’s last charting song, dying at #66. The song and performance are quite effective, a remake of a Warren Smith hit from 1961 but by this time his recording career was completely dead.

If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry” – Jerry Wallace (1972)
Jerry Wallace was more of a pop singer than a country singer. He had several huge pop/easy listening hits during the 1960s, but then hit lean times causing Jerry to re-launch his career as a country singer. This song got to #1 on all of the country charts, fueled by exposure on an episode of the popular television show Night Gallery.

Big Blue Diamond” – Jacky Ward (1972)
Recorded on the Target label, this song only got to #39 although it was really huge in some markets. This song landed him at Mercury where he had some bigger hits. The original version of this song has not been available for many years and none of the remakes have the sizzle of the original.

I’m Already Taken” – Steve Wariner (1978)
An early version of a song Wariner had more success with fifteen years later. This charted at #63, the first of many chart hits for Steve Wariner.

“Bottle of Wine” – Doc & Merle Watson (1973)
Legendary blind guitarist Doc Watson only charted twice, both times accompanied by his equally talented son Merle (1949-85). Anyone who has not heard Doc Watson truly has a gaping hole in their musical education. Fortunately, many of his fine albums remain in print.

The Old Man and His Horn” – Gene Watson (1977)
This is absolutely my favorite Gene Watson song, although it’s close between this song and 75 others. Gene was never quite the chart presence a singer of his enormous talent deserved, but he had a pretty strong run of top 10 records from 1975 to 1984, with four records making it to #1 on Billboard, Cashbox or Record World. This wasn’t one of the bigger hits, reaching #11 on both Billboard and Cashbox, but its strong New Orleans feel makes it perhaps Gene’s most distinctive hit record. My recommendation for those who want to delve deeper into Gene’s music is … buy everything!

I’ll Still Love You” – Jim Weatherly (1975)
Much better known as a songwriter; Ray Price recorded one album of nothing but Jim Weatherly songs and another album of mostly Jim Weatherly songs. Jim’s most famous song was “Midnight Train To Georgia,” which was a huge hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. This was Jim’s only top 10 hit.

“The Happiness of Having You” – Jay Lee Webb (1971)
This was the last of three chart records for Loretta Lynn’s brother. Charley Pride would have a much bigger hit with this in 1976.

Dueling Banjos” – Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell (1973)
Featured in the movie Deliverance, this song was written by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith during the mid 1950s. There is an interesting back story arising out of the movie, as the producers of the movie tried to use the song without paying Smith any royalties. Smith sued (after first trying to negotiate and being stonewalled) – Weissberg testified at trial that he originally learned the song from a record his grandfather had of Don Reno and Arthur Smith playing the tune!

“Ballad of A Hillbilly Singer” – Freddy Weller (1972)
Freddy Weller was part of Paul Revere and The Raiders from 1967-71. He launched his country career in 1969 with a #1 Cashbox hit in “Games People Play” and continued to have top 10 country success for the next four years. A very successful songwriter with songs such as “Jam Up Jelly Tight” and “Dizzy” both being big pop hits for Tommy Roe. His biggest country copyright was “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers” which was a big hit for both Bob Luman and Steve Wariner. John Michael Montgomery, Reba McEntire, George Jones and countless others have recorded his songs.

This song was somewhat of an insider joke, containing instrumental signatures of artists such as Roy Acuff, David Houston, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins. Consequently it only reached #26, but I love the song. I would also commend “Perfect Stranger” to anyone who wants to check out Freddy Weller.

“Wild Side of Life” – Kitty Wells and Rayburn Anthony (1979)
Kitty Wells had no top forty hits during the 1970s. This was Kitty’s last charting record, her 81st chart hit. This record reached #60, and found Kitty interjecting answer verses into Rayburn’s recording of the old Hank Thompson hit. By the time this record hit, Kitty was 60 years old. In a few months she will turn 93. She still is the Queen of Country Music.

Country Sunshine” – Dottie West (1973)
Record World had this record reach #1, Cashbox and Billboard both had it at #2. If I recall correctly, this song was inspired by a Coca Cola commercial. Dottie was lost in the shuffle at RCA and later signed with United Artists where she had some huge hits on some of the most contrived material I’ve ever heard.

Una Paloma Blanca” – Slim Whitman (1977)
A cover of an international pop hit by the Dutch band George Baker Selection, Slim’s version did not chart, but it certainly showed off his vocal prowess.