My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mickey Raphael

Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘The Nashville Tapes’

Adam headed to Nashville to record his latest album in the legendary Studio A, built by Cowboy Jack Clement. Nash Chambers, son of Bill and brother of Kasey, produced. Adam wrote or co-wrote much of the material. He states his musical credo in the charming ‘I’d Rather Be A Highwayman’, happy to play in bars for the sake of the music

Smoky rooms and dimlit nights
Tucked among the neon lights
I play the soundtrack while they drink
But I’m not as lonely as you think
These country songs I live and breathe
Fuel to burn the fire in me
They simply let me be myself
I’m not sayin’ I don’t care for rock and roll
But it don’t feel the same way in my soul

I’d rather be a Highwayman than a Rolling Stone
I’d rather be singing to a barstool some cowboy’s sittin’ on
So nothing makes me give a damn
More than country music can
I’d rather be a Highwayman than a Rolling Stone

Empty faces come in here for the friendly atmosphere
Music seems to wash their cares away
There’s freedom in these country songs I play
Now, I may never make it rich
By the time I call it quits
Not every rainbow ends in gold
But I’ll still be singing as the final curtains close

The power of country music also informs ‘What A Song Can Do’, with its tender recollection of a father where music was the only bond.

They can make you laugh, help you cry
Take you to a place in time that you once knew
Sing you home or say goodbye
Change your mind or change your life
It’s true
Ain’t it funny what a song can do?

The Last Post on ANZAC Day
Or when I hear Amazing Grace or He Stopped Loving Her Today

(For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with it, ANZAC Day commemorates the sacrifice of Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the First World War, especially at Gallipoli in 1915, and is hugely important in Australian culture.)

Adam pays fond tribute to Willie Nelson with the Bill Chambers co-write ‘When Willie’s Gone’. Mickey Raphael provides harmonica on a track musically recalling ‘On The Road Again’. Raphael also shines on the excellent ‘Less Of A Thinking Man’, about making problems worse by brooding over them.

Another mainstay of Australian country music, Troy Cassar-Daly, helped Adam to write ‘We’ll Have To Drink Our Way Out Of This’. This is a great country song about drinking to get over a woman and the state of the world alike. Adam draws on his Australian heritage in his duet with another Aussie star, Lee Kernaghan, on Slim Dusty’s classic folk-country singalong ‘Three Rivers Hotel’, set in an itinerant railway workers’ tavern. Kernaghan’s Australian accent is much stronger than Adam’s, underlining the character of the song. ‘Those Holden Days’, written by Stewart French, presumably another Australian, is gently nostalgic about a teenager’s first car whose manufacturer has now ceased making cars.

There are a handful of other, less predictable, covers. ‘Never Be Anyone Else But You’ was a pop hit for Ricky Nelson in the late 50s, but has been done in a country style before by Emmylou Harris. Adam’s version is likeably catchy. Neil Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’ is less successful, pitched in too low a key for Adam’s voice, but is a rare misstep.

‘This Lovin’ You’ is a sweet love song inspired by Adam’s wife. ‘Lucky’ recounts life advice from an old mentor. The mid-tempo ‘Anything You Want Me To’ combines both themes, with a wife thanked for helping him fulfil his potential.

Harvey is one of my favorite Australian country singers, thanks to his hugely listenable deep baritone voice and traditional leaning instincts. This album is excellent and I strongly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Last Man Standing’

While Willie Nelson isn’t the last of the great country music stars of the 1950s and 1960s (Roy Clark, Jan Howard, Stonewall Jackson, Connie Smith, Charley Pride and Bill Anderson are still around), the title still seems appropriate as Willie is one of the few still active, albeit less active than previously.

Last Man Standing is the 2018 release for Willie, containing original songs co-written by Willie with the album’s producer Buddy Cannon. Most of these songs were penned shortly after the release of last year’s Nelson release God’s Problem Child.

The album opens up with the title track, a song which poses the dilemma faced by the aging – we want to keep living but there are times when it seems that all of our friends are disappearing. This is a great song that country radio won’t play but which can be heard on Sirius XM and other sources.

I don’t wanna be the last man standing

Or wait a minute maybe I do

If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line

And decide after thinking it through

Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry

Like heaven ain’t waiting for you

I don’t wanna be the last man standing

On second thought maybe I do

 

It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out

Cuts like a wore out knife

One thing I learned about running the road

Is forever don’t apply to life

Waylon and Ray and Merle and old Harlan

Lived just as fast as me

I still got a lotta good friends left

And I wonder who the next will be

The next track is “Don’t Tell Noah”, a funky number somewhat difficult to characterize, but which reminds somewhat of the sort of lyrics that Mose Allison penned. This is not a religiously themed song.

I suppose all of us have been plagued with “Bad Breath” at one time or another, but as Willie notes “bad breath is better than no breath at all”. This song features the harmonica playing of Mickey Raphael. This song is about more of the problems associated with aging.

“Me and You” reflects the state of affairs that I think everyone experiences at one time or another. For most of us, after all it really comes down to one trusted companion.

Turn the sound down on my TV

I just can’t listen anymore

It’s like I’m in some foreign country

That I’ve never seen before

 

So come now here to think about it

What in the hell are we goin to do?

after all is said and all is done

It’s just me and you

 

It’s just me and you

And we are definitely outnumbered

There’s more of them than us

Just when you think you made a new friend

They throw you under the bus

So it’s just me and you

It’s just me and you

Willie slows down the tempo for the contemplative “Something You Get Through”. This song deals with the emotional effects of loss. Mike Johnson plays some lovely steel guitar on this track.

“Ready To Roar” kicks up the tempo for this western-swing flavored track. We’ve all been there – “It’s Friday and we’re ready to roar”.

“Heaven Is Closed” is Willie’s take on reasons to keep living after his girl has left him. It’s an odd perspective but rather appropriate anyway.

Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded

So I think I’ll just stay where I am

So many people, well it sure is lonely

But who even gives a damn?

I hear someone callin’, “Come in from the craziness”

But there ain’t nobody around

Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded

So I think I’ll just stay where I am

 

Heaven left for California on a midnight plane

Hell stayed behind so I wouldn’t be lonely

For reasons that’s hard to explain

Could it be hell is heaven and that heaven is hell

And each one are both the same thing?

Well I hope heaven finds what she’s lookin’ for

And that hell treats us both just the same

“I Ain’t Got No Nothin’ “ is a rollicking mid-tempo honky-tonk ballad that might as easily been played by Fats Domino, Bob Wills, or Amos Milburn with only slight changes of instrumentation.

  I got a dog, I got a cat

An I-phone and a hip-hop hat

But I ain’t got nothin’ ’cause you ain’t here with me

 

I got house, I got a barn

A big truck and a red Jaguar

But I ain’t got nothin’ ’cause you ain’t here with me

Willie remains in this mid-tempo honky-tonk mode with “She Made My Life” then shifts gears with “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time”, a somewhat religiously themed slow song about trying to keep to the God’s path.

“Very Far To Crawl” closes out the album, a song about the end of a relationship and the desperation of someone looking to rekindle it. The instrumentation is very bluesy and I can see this song being picked up by blues performers, should they chance to hear the song.

 I knew that you had hurt me bad

The brokest heart I ever had

And I’m still right where you let me fall

So I don’t have very far to crawl

 

You kicked me right in the heart, babe

I shouldn’t even be here at all

Tryin’ hard to get back to you

I don’t have very far to crawl

In recent years Willie would release three or four albums per year and while those days are probably gone, what we have here is an excellent album, which found Willie (mostly) good voice, accompanied by a group of musicians who truly understand what Willie is all about

I would give the album as described above an A- ; however, the version of the album I have was purchased at the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain and contains three bonus cuts that add value to the album:

The Front Row – another Nelson & Cannon collaboration that I love

Who’ll Buy My Memories – a piano and acoustic guitar remake of an older Nelson tune

Summer of Roses / December Day – also piano and acoustic guitar, originally Willie’s RCA years

Album Review: Midland – ‘On The Rocks’

New country band Midland have received a certain amount of online criticism based on their perceived inauthenticity. I will say that the image as presented on the album cover comes across as trying too hard to be self-consciously retro, but no more so than Gram Parsons did in his day. That aside, is the music worthwhile? I wouldn’t call this a hardcore traditional record, but it has a lot of solid country input, and reminded me a little of the early work of the Mavericks.

All the songs were written by the band’s guitarist Jess Carson, mostly with other band members Cameron Duddy (bass guitar) and singer Mark Wystrach, and some outside input. Wystrach has a fine smooth tenor voice with a sophisticated crooning style which works best on ballads.

The lead single ‘Drinking’ Problem’, written by the band with their producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, was a considerable success for them, getting to #3 on the country airplay chart and sales being certified gold. It’s an excellent song in traditional vein about a man drinking to forget the woman who has broken his heart, with a memorable melody:

People say I got a drinkin’ problem
That ain’t no reason to stop
People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom
Just ’cause I’m livin’ on the rocks
It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem
So pull the bottle off the wall
People say I got a drinkin’ problem
But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

They keep on talkin’
Drawin’ conclusions
They call it a problem
I call it a solution

There is even a steel guitar solo from Paul Franklin. It’s so good, in fact, I’m amazed it was so well received at country radio.

New single ‘Make A Little’, from the same writing team, raises the tempo and is decent but not that memorable, with a slightly annoying melodic twist on the hook. The best of the other songs written with McAnally and Osborne, ‘Nothin’ New Under The Neon’ is reminiscent of early George Strait, although Wystrach has an annoying habit of occasionally veering off into a falsetto which detracts from the song. ‘Burn Out’ is another good song about hanging out in a bar room because the protagonist’s love life hasn’t panned out, although this time he is smoking as well as drinking. ‘More Than A Fever’ is a pleasant sounding love song with the vocals failing to capture the passion evoked in the lyrics. ‘Electric Rodeo’ is not very interesting and slightly over produced.

Opener ‘Lonely For You Only’ is a another well sung crooned ballad, and a very good song, written by the band with Osborne and Rhett Akins. This partnership also produced the closing ‘Somewhere On The Wind’, a very nice valediction featuring Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. Akins and Rodney Clawson teamed up with the band to write ‘Altitude Adjustment’, quite a fun mid-tempo tune about heading off to Colorado. McAnally and Luke Laird helped to write the mid-tempo breakup song ‘Out Of Sight’ which is quite good with retro backing vocals.

Jonathan Singleton wrote two songs with the boys. ‘At Least you Cried’ is a bit boring and the brassy production flattens out Wystrach’s voice. ‘This Old Heart’ (also cowritten with David Lee Murphy) is okay but undistinguished. Finally, the band’s Jess Carson wrote one song on his own. ‘Check Cashin’ Country’ is a likeable mid-tempo number about life as a struggling country band.

Overall, this is a pretty good record. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s much better than most current major label releases. I would definitely recommend downloading ‘Drinking Problem’ and ‘Altitude Adjustment’ with a number of the other tracks worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – ‘Django & Jimmie’

django and jimmieDjango & Jimmie is the latest endeavor by the ageless comrades Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. While the title suggests an album of songs made famous by Django Reinhart and Jimmie Rodgers, the Django part of the equation would be impossible to pull off since Django was a Gypsy guitarist whose musical compositions were instrumentals, “Nuages” being the most famous.

Instead what we have is an album of interesting songs, mostly new but some old, and taken from a variety of sources.

The Django connection for Willie Nelson is quite strong; you can hear it every time Willie plays his guitar. While Willie is an excellent guitar player, he is not in Django’s class (almost no one is) but listen to some Django recordings and you will know why Willie’s guitar playing sounds like it does.

As for Merle’s connection to Jimmie Rodgers, Merle and those such as Lefty Frizzell who influenced Merle, grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the height of his commercial prowess in 1969 (he released six albums in 1969), Merle felt strongly enough about the music of Jimmie Rodgers that he recorded a two album set that he got Capitol Records to release. Ken Nelson, Merle’s producer must have cringed at the idea of releasing a two album set of blues, yodels, thirties pop music, Hawaiian music and parlor songs but release it he did. Nelson also put Rodgers’ “California Blues” as the B side to “Hungry Eyes”.

Surprisingly, the title song “Django and Jimmie” was not written by either Willie or Merle, coming instead from the pens of Jimmy Melton & Jeff Prince. In this jog-along ballad, Willie and Merle discuss where their styles came from

W

illie I’m a kid with a guitar
Trying to play “Nuages”, when they ask
Where does your style come from?

Merle I know what you mean
‘Cause I learned to sing
Listening to blue, yodel number one

Willie We love Hank and Lefty
Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash
But if we had to pinpoint
The start of who we are
Or who we go by

Both The Django and Jimmie
Paris, Mississippi
A young singing brakeman
A jazz playing gypsy
Might not have been
A Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie

The rest of the album really has nothing to do with Django or Jimmie, except to the extent that Django and Jimmie flavor all of their music.

“It’s All Going To Pot” has nothing to do with marijuana but instead comments on the general state of the world and the state of their own lives. The song was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell with Jamey joining Merle and Willie in vocalizing. The song is very upbeat in tempo with some Mariachi horns (played by Jamey Johnson):

Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
All of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
It just couldn’t hit the spot
I gotta hundred dollar bill, friend
You can keep your pills
‘Cause it’s all going to pot

“Unfair Weather Friend” is a gentle ballad about friendship. Penned by Marla Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, the song is the flip of the concept of fair weather friends.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a recent Merle Haggard composition on which Merle and Willie and Bobby Bare swap lyrics and stories about Johnny Cash. The song is an affectionate look back at their departed friend. This is another jog-along ballad that probably cannot be covered in a believable manner by anyone else. Here’s one of Willie’s verses:

Well now Johnny Cash wore black attire
And he fell into that Ring of Fire
He came up swinging like a Boy Named Sue
And he married June Carter and he [?] too
He wrote his songs from deep within
And he hit the stage with a crooked grin
He and I were both Highwaymen
And that record became a smash
Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash

Here’s Bobby Bare’s verse:

Johnny Cash never walked no line
Johnny Cash never did no time, but
When he sang a Folsom Prison Blues
You knew good and well he’d paid his dues
True, he always dressed in black
But he loved folks and they loved him back
Carried his pills in a brown paper sack
Well I don’t care if they found his stash
I’m missin’ old Johnny Cash

Shawn Camp and Marv Green wrote “Live This Long” and I suspect that they wrote it specifically for this album. Another slow ballad, this song look backward at life and what might have done differently if the narrators had known that they would live this long.

“Alice In Hula Land” is a Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon co-write. As performed here, the song is yet another slow ballad, but with a very Hawaiian sound. As best as I can tell, this song is about a groupie, although I may be very mistaken in my interpretation.

Alice in Hulaland
Come sit here on the front row
And get close to the sound
As close as you can
Are you there for the melody?
There for the lyrics?
Or just for the boys in the band?

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is the Bob Dylan classic from treated as a straight-ahead country ballad with steel guitar featured prominently (Mike Johnson &/or Dan Dugmore) and harmonica by Mickey Raphael featured at points in the song also.

“Family Bible” was one of Willie’s first successful songs. Willie sold the rights to the song so the songwriter credits read Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk and Walt Breeland. Merle sings the verses on this song while Willie limits himself to playing the guitar and singing harmony on the choruses. THis is a very nice recording, perhaps my favorite recording of the song.

WIllie Nelson and Buddy Cannon collaborated on “It’s Only Money”. I don’t know who Renato Caranto is, but his saxophone work. Mike Johnson’s dobro and Jim “Moose” Brown’s keyboards really shine on this up-tempo song.

“Swinging Doors” was a huge Merle Haggard hit in 1966. If you ever wondered how Willie Nelson would tackle the song, here’s your chance to find out. Willie and Merle swap verses on this one.

“This Is Where Dreams Come To Die” is yet another Willie Nelson – Buddy Cannon composition. This slow ballad would make a lovely single in a less brain-dead musical environment.

This is where dreams come to die
This is where dreams come to die
Then they fly back to heaven
But this is where dreams come to die

They’re fun when you dream them
Everyone is laughing at you
And it’s fun, watching them wonder
And all of the dreams are coming true

“Somewhere Between” is a old Merle Haggard song from 1967, an album track from his 1967 album Branded Man. Suzy Bogguss had a nice recording of the song about twenty years ago, but the song never has been a big hit for anyone, being mostly relegated to being an album track on countless albums. Willie sings the vocals on this one.

Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high that it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go
And sometimes, I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key

Yet another Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon song is next, a cowboy western ballad titled “Driving The Herd”. The subject matter seems self-explanatory, but the song can be interpreted either as a song about a cattle drive, or a song about a singer gauging his audience.

The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”, another recent Merle Haggard composition that could be about either Merle or Willie in their younger days. The tempo is that of a slow ballad.

This album is fine – although older, Willie’s voice is in better shape than Haggard’s, but the band is tight, the songs are very good and the songs are treated with proper respect. It’s pretty clear that neither artist has an ego problem because the ebb and flow between Willie and Merle couldn’t be better

Grade: A-

Album Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Good Wine & Bad Decisions’

good wine and bad decisionsIt’s nearly 10 years since Julie Roberts first appeared on the radar of country fans, and in the years since she’s endured more reverses than many artists, including losing her major label deal, losing her home in the Nashville floods, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and last year being passed up for The Voice. Her career never quite fulfilled the promise of her distinctive emotion-filled voice; even her biggest hit, ‘Break Down Here’, barely cracked the top 20 even though it sold over half a million copies. I loved her two Mercury albums, but was left a little disappointed by her independent album a couple of years ago. Now, she has been signed to a revived Sun Records, and has new music.

Jason Collum co-produces and co-wrote many of the songs with Julie. The result is much stronger than her last record. Collum’s production is often low-key, mixing the country torch balladry at which Julie has always shone, with occasional rock and soul influences, but always allows Julie’s trademark sultry vocals to take center stage.

The outstanding song is ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray’, written by Chris Stapleton. This is a very touching tribute to a religious father after his death. I also rather liked the album’s other religious song, the longing ‘Arms Of Jesus’, backed by subtle strains of churchy piano and organ.

Steve Earle’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ (recorded in the early 90s by Mark Chesnutt) is a reminder that Earle, better known for his country rock and political songs, can write a stunning country ballad when he chooses, and Julie does the song full justice.

‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is a Bobbie Gentry cover, and the production and arrangement of a southern teenager’s sexual awakening. The vocal is convincing enough for it to be an enjoyable track, although the production is like the original to the point of sounding like a pastiche.

Buddy Miller harmonises on his own ‘Gasoline & Matches’. Julie sturdy version is less frenetic than others I have heard, including the recent cut by LeAnn Rimes, allowing the lyrics more prominence. This is a very good recording which grows the more you hear it.

Vince Gill guests on the lonesome ballad ‘Old Strings’, which Julie sings beautifully as she agonises over her continuing feelings for an ex. A lovely melancholy feel and tasteful arrangement make this another highlight.

The seductive ‘Keep Me Up All Night’, addressed to a husband who has let the romance fade, which Julie originally wrote for her debut album a decade ago with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten, but never recorded, is pretty good, and was worth pulling off the shelves.

The title track is an excellent song about a one-night stand with an old flame, regretted almost before it takes place. This should be ideal for Julie’s sultry voice, but unfortunately her pitch sounds noticeably off in places.

‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ is another excellent song about a woman refusing to acknowledge her husband is leaving, with a soothing melody and an understated acoustic arrangement. ‘Old Habit’ is another instant classic, a despairing ballad about facing the last vestiges of a relationship, with a desperate Julie realising her lover is treating her as a convenience. The phrasing and emotional interpretation are beautifully judged.

Some of the material stretches the boundaries a little. The harmonica-led bluesy country-rock of ‘If I Were You’, addressed to a neglectful lover by his partner in adultery, is quite catchy, with a heavy drum beat anchoring the rhythm; the harmonica is played by Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael. The rocking ‘When It’s Over’ is not quite as good, seemingly at odds with the downbeat lyric and not quite right for Julie’s voice. The minor keyed ‘Bones’ is a fairly faithful cover of a song from British retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. It’s not country, but Julie sings it well and it is certainly an interesting choice. The bluesy soul of ‘Wrong About You’ works better for me.

The liner notes are in unreadably tiny print and essentially useless. The music, however, is mostly very good; a little more adventurous than her major label work, and a definite advance on her last release. if you’ve missed Julie’s bluesy voice, this is a very worthwhile purchase or download.

Grade: A

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Album Review: Willie Nelson and Family – ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’

let's face the music and danceAt 80 Willie Nelson remains one of the most prolific, and eclectic, of musicians. His latest album showcases his jazzy side, and the influences of the popular music of his childhood, but the relatively stripped down accompaniments should appeal to Willie’s country fans. Tastefully understated production from the estimable Buddy Cannon, and backings mainly from Willie’s ‘Family’ band (in fact the record is credited to Willie Nelson and Family) lead to a relaxed sounding set. Always a stylist rather than a great vocalist, Nelson’s voice has not deteriorated significantly enough to hamper his interpretations of these songs.

A quietly jazzy reading of 1930s Irving Berlin-penned standard ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’ with Spanish guitar backing sets the mood for the album. Much of the album has a very similar pace, and although it works very well, occasionally it gets a bit samey.

Nelson has recorded ‘Twilight Time’ before, and this version is pleasant but feels redundant. Some of the remaining songs (Berlin’s ‘Marie (the Dawn Is Breaking)’, ‘You’ll Never Know’ and ‘I Wish I Didn’t Love You So’) have that classical Great American Songbook feel and Willie and band perform them impeccably, but I found my attention wandering a little while they were playing. The similarly vintage ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ has a lot more charm and the prominent harmonica from Mickey Raphael and Bobbie Nelson’s piano licks add character.

I also liked ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, which is even older, dating from a 1920s musical rooted in Harlem jazz, the most popular African-American music of the period. It suits Willie’s laid back vocal and the band sound great on the extended instrumental intro.

‘I’ll Keep On Loving You’ was a country hit in 1940 for country/Western Swing legend Floyd Tillman, and is another song well-suited to Nelson and band. Nelson also tackles ‘Shame On You’, a song from western swing pioneer Spade Cooley, sadly better known for the savage murder of his wife, which makes this song, castigating an unfaithful wife, rather uncomfortable listening.

Most of the songs come from the 1920s through the 1940s. The most modern song is Willie’s own ‘Is The Better Part Over’ (from the 1989 album A Horse Called Music). It is a distinctly downbeat number about calling time on a failing relationship, but it is an excellent song and Willie’s understated and subtle interpretation make this a highlight.

A couple of nicely played jazz instrumentals (both associated with Django Reinhardt) allow the band to stretch out.

First recorded for a movie by singing cowboy Gene Autry, ‘South Of The Border’ has a relaxed Mexican feel which rings the changes a bit. I also enjoyed the mid-paced harmonica-led take on the Carl Perkins rockabilly classic ‘Matchbox’.

This is a fine record from a man it would be no exaggeration to call a living legend.

Grade: A

Buy Let’s Face the Music and Dance at amazon.

Listen to the album on Spotify.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’

Emmylou’s fourth album was released in January 1978 on Warner Brothers, which had taken over her contract from the subsidiary Reprise. A personal favorite of mine, it contains a number of her classic recordings. The lineup marks the replacement of Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs, with both men playing on the record. The arrangements and musicians are, as usual, impeccable. There was a change of emphasis with the selection of material, with no classic revivals this time (although a number of the tracks have become classics in their own right since), but a concentration on new songs.  The quality of material is as high as Emmylou’s fans had come to expect. Emmylou was now married to producer Brian Ahern, and their personal and professional partnership showed them in perfect tune. Ironically, given her newlywed status, the overarching theme is one of leaving, whether that means a lover or spouse, a parent, or life itself.

One of the classics born on this record was the first single. ‘To Daddy’ was written by Dolly Parton, who generously relinquished the opportunity to sing the song to her friend, not recording it herself for many years. Emmylou’s subtle version was a big hit, reaching #3. The devastating lyric tells the story of a downtrodden wife and mother who suffers silently for years with her neglectful and uncaring husband, and then leaves with as little fuss as she made during the marriage:

She never meant to come back home
If she did, she never did say so to Daddy

Told from the viewpoint of one of the children, Emmylou delivers one of her purest vocals, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. This is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris recordings. It was followed on the charts by the #1 hit ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, an up-tempo rocking-blues Delbert McClinton song which offers a defiant response to loneliness and a lover’s departure:

It’s alright cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine

Another song now widely (and rightly) regarded as a classic, the poetic ‘Easy From Now On’, written by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna and a young Carlene Carter (billed by her first married name of Routh), peaked at #12. Emmylou sounds a little sad as she plans to drink the night away following the end of a relationship. The lyrics provide the album’s title, and Susanna Clark also painted the picture used for the cover art.

Rodney Crowell, about to leave the Hot Band to launch his own solo career, contributed a couple of songs as a parting gift. There are Cajun touches to the story song ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight , which was later a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Rick Danko of The Band sings harmony and his bandmate Garth Hudson plays sax and accordion. The driving ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ is a hard-boiled country rocker addressed to a low-life individual headed for life in jail, and Rodney’s own version was to be the title track of his debut album later the same year, also on Warner Brothers.

Willie Nelson sings a prominent harmony on the folky ‘One Paper Kid’, a downbeat story about another of life’s failures, set to an attractive tune and a very simple acoustic backing consisting of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Emmylou herself on guitar. The pair had toured together, and their voices blend beautifully on another highlight.

The tribute to the ‘Green Rolling Hills’ of West Virginia, written by folk singer Utah Phillips, is sung as a duet with Emmylou’s longtime harmony singer Fayssoux Starling, which sounds just lovely. Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell’s replacement in the Hot Band, plays fiddle and viola on this track, foreshadowing the changes his influence was to bring in Emmylou’s music.

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester contributed two songs, the beautiful and perhaps metaphorical ballad ‘My Songbird’ and the swooping and allusive ‘Defying Gravity’, with Nicolette Larson on harmony. The album closes with the slowed down bluesy rockabilly of ‘Burn That Candle’, which is the only track I don’t much like, with some very odd emphases in the pronunciation.

The 2004 CD reissue included two previously unreleased live cuts from the early 80s with a Cajun flavor – Guy Clark’s ‘New Cut Road’ and ‘Lacassine Special’ (sung in French). They are well performed, but feel a little out of place here.

Grade: A