My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Nat “King” Cole

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music.’

real country musicWhile his commercial success never equalled his prowess, Gene Watson is one of the great country singers. Furthermore, of all the veterans still performing, his voice has held out the best, and almost unbelievably, he still sounds glorious at over 70. Gene’s producer for the last few projects, Dirk Johnson, does his usual sterling job – few album titles are as accurate about the contents as this one. The songs are all older ones, making this album something of a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and are almost all emotional ballads about lost love, which play to Gene’s strengths as a vocalist.

One does not normally expect to hear a Gene Watson album opening with swelling strings, but his voice soon takes over, and the remainder of the album comprises familiar country arrangements featuring fiddles and steel guitars. ‘Enough For You’ is an excellent Kris Kristofferson tune which first appeared on the latter’s Jesus Was A Capricorn album in 1972. Gene says he first heard it in 1980 in the form of Billie Jo Spears’s cover (from her 1975 album Billie Jo), and has wanted to record it ever since. The suicidal cuckold’s lament is perfectly suited to Watson’s perfectly judged vocal, and is the first single.

‘She Never Got Me Over You’ is the last song Keith Whitley wrote before his untimely death (with the help of Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran). A powerful song about love and obsession, it was recorded a few years ago by Mark Chesnutt, but Gene makes it sound as if it was written just for him. If you want to check out Keith’s original demo, it’s on youtube.

There are two covers of Larry Gatlin songs, both of which were recorded by Elvis in the 70s. The gospel ballad ‘Help Me’ is delicately understated (and may serve as a taster for a new religious album Gene plans to release later this year). ‘Bitter They Are, Harder To Fall’ is a classic heartbreak ballad which Gene actually recorded many years ago on his early album Because You Believed In Me.

Gene revisits a number of other songs he has previously recorded on this album. ‘Old Loves Never Die’ was never a single, but as the title track of one of his most successful albums is perhaps the most familiar to fans. The melancholic ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was on his excellent but often overlooked 1987 alDbum Honky Tonk Crazy (his final Epic release). He covered the superb ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’ (previously cut by George Jones) on his now hard to find 1997 album A Way To Survive; this new steel-led recording is beautiful. He cut Bill Anderson’s ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’ on his Sings set in 2003; another jealous man’s pain-filled take on love lost but still deeply felt, this is magnificently sung.

A little less familiar is ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ – not the classic song of that name, but a David Ball song from the latter’s underrated 2004 album Freewheeler. A subtly sad, slow song about poignant memories of lost love with the steel guitar to the fore, it fits nicely with the other material. ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’ is a wonderful song written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah which was one of Conway Twitty’s last few singles. Nat Stuckey’s emotional All My Tomorrows’ is another fine song and recording.

The one song not fitting the pattern of slow sad songs is a honky tonker previously recorded by Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘I’ll Find It Where I Can’. One venture away from country territory is a cover of the Nat King Cole hit ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. Although there have been country covers of the song before, none was a big hit. Gene’s version is nice, and he certainly mnages to make it sound like a country song, but insofar as this album has a weak spot, this is it.

This is a superb album of excellent songs by one of the genre’s all time great singers, who is, thankfully, still in possession of his golden voice.

Grade: A+

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Spotlight Artist: Glen Campbell

glen campbellAs he slowly fades away due to Alzheimer’s, I think it appropriate that we take a look at the long and illustrious career of Glen Campbell.

Assessing Glen’s career is very difficult because he was so very talented. As a singer and musician he probably was as talented as anyone who ever graced the American musical stage. Over the course of his career Glen placed eighty songs on Billboard’s Country, Hot Hundred and Adult Contemporary charts with many of the songs appearing on multiple charts. Many of his singles charted in England, Australia and Ireland, with scattered hits in non-English speaking countries.

Glen could sing anything and sing it well, be it rock and roll, country, pop standards, rhythm and blues or folk. Jimmy Webb heard an early Glen Campbell single on the radio and decided that he wanted Glen Campbell to sing his songs.

As a musician you can hardly name a stringed instrument that Glen Campbell couldn’t play. He was a wizard on the twelve string guitar, six string guitar (electric and acoustic), bass, banjo, fiddle, If you can name it, Glen Campbell probably could play it.

Although Glen was not especially known as a songwriter, he did pen a few songs. He might have written more songs, but with the top songwriters of the day pitching their best material to him, there wasn’t a compelling need for him to do so.

Glen Travis Campbell was born in 1936 in the town of Billstown, Arkansas; however, he was usually billed as being from the nearby town of Delight, Arkansas. He started playing guitar as a teen and moved to Albuquerque in 1954 to play in his uncle’s band and later to form his own band. In 1960 he moved to Los Angeles to become a session musician, playing on recordings by artists as diverse as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Jan & Dean and Ricky Nelson. He also became part of a group known as the Champs and obtained a recording contract with Crest Records.

In 1962 Glen signed with Capitol Records. Capitol had great faith in the Glen allowing to record five non-charting albums and a bunch of relatively unsuccessful singles before finally achieving his first solo top twenty country single with “Burning Bridges” in 1966. Along the way he became a touring member of the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson on road dates.

Capitol Records teamed Glen with producer Al DeLory in 1966. The first collaboration, “Burning Bridges” got the ball rolling for Glen. From that point forward over a decade’s worth of hit singles and best-selling albums would follow, along with a television show, movie roles and many concert appearances . Although Glen’s recording career would cool off during the 1980s, he would continue to place singles and albums on the charts through the end of the decade and into the early years of the 1990s. A brief renaissance would occur after 2005.

Our spotlight series will start with Glen’s first platinum album Gentle On My Mind, but the five albums that preceded it are worth investigating as they will show Glen in a variety of setting of musical settings from bluegrass to traditional country to folk to rock to pop country. I would particularly recommend checking out The Astounding Twelve String Guitar of Glen Campbell and The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell to get a dose of Glen’s awesome instrumental prowess.

We are proud to present Glen Campbell as our November Spotlight artist.

Album Review: Raul Malo – ‘After Hours’

51tOoPsggiLThere is always risk in releasing an album of “covers”. First, the possibility always exists that the material is too familiar to attract much attention. Second, there is the risk of being unfavorably compared to the earlier versions of the material being covered.

After Hours mostly avoids the first risk by focusing on material from before 1973, ensuring that most of the audience will not be terribly familiar with the material. The second risk is more problematic as there are some definite misfires in the tempos at which some of the songs are performed.

The album opens with “Welcome To My World”, a ballad generally associated with either “Gentleman” Jim Reeves or Dean Martin, two of the premier balladeers of the twentieth century. Jim Reeves had a smooth, velvety voice capable of conveying warmth like few others (Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Ray Price) ever could. Dean Martin was the King of Cool with great warmth but a more casual feel to his vocals than Reeves could achieve. If you have not heard either Reeves or Martin perform this song, then you will really like Malo’s performance. Raul does not have the warmth of his predecessors, but does an admirable job with the song and the accompaniment is excellent.

“(Now and Then) There’s A Fool Such As I” is a slight misstep, taken at a tempo that is too fast and bouncy for the sad lyrics. This song was a big hit for Hank Snow in 1952 and was covered by some guy named Elvis Presley (himself a big Hank Snow fan) a few years later. A honky-tonk style piano takes a break in the song but the basic arrangement is big band swing.

Malo gets back on track with the Kris Kristofferson classic “For The Good Times”, a song which revitalized Ray Price’s career in the early 1970s. Again, I prefer Ray’s version, but Raul’s take is very nice.
Steel Guitar is heard on this song toward the very end of the song

The two newest songs on the album come from the pen of Dwight Yoakam. The first of these is “Pocket of A Clown”, a song that just missed the top twenty for Dwight in 1994 (it reached #4 on the Canadian country chart). Raul’s arrangement is a little slower than the original and has a 40s/50s feel to the horn arrangements.

“Crying Time” was written by Buck Owens, who regarded the song as album filler. A few years later Ray Charles resurrected the song causing Buck to add it to his set list (usually as part of a medley). It’s a great song, and Malo does it justice, although he can’t deliver it with the same soul that Ray did (no one else could either).

A serious misstep follows with the Hank Williams classic “Cold Cold Heart”. It certainly is possible to treat the song as a pop song (Tony Bennett sold millions of copies with his cover) but here the tempo is much too fast and much too happy for such a morose set of lyrics

“You Can Depend On Me” is the oldest song on the album written sometime before 1931 by Charles Carpenter, Louis Dunlap and jazz piano great Earl “Fatha” Hines. The song was recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Nat King Cole. In 1961 Brenda Lee took it to #6 on the pop charts. Malo handles this song quite effectively. The basic arrangement would be that of cocktail lounge jazz.

Oh if you ever, if you ever need a friend
I’ll be right by your side until the end
And you can depend on me
You can depend on me

My favorite song on the album is “Husbands and Wives”, which was written by Roger Miller and went top five country, #2 adult contemporary and top thirty pop for Roger in 1966. Subsequently, the duo of David Frizzell and Shelly West had a top twenty county hit with it in 1981, and Brooks & Dunn took it to #1 country and #36 pop in 1998. This song features steel guitar as part of the instrumentation, the only truly country sounding song of the album. For me, it as a toss-up whether Neil Diamond’s album track from his 1971 album Stones or Raul’s version on this album is my favorite version of this song.

The angry words, spoken in haste
Such a waste of two lives
It’s my belief, pride is the chief cause and the decline
In the number of husbands and wives

Speaking of Roger Miller, one of the last songs Roger wrote was a co-write with Dwight Yoakam on “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” a #7 country hit for Yoakam in 1991. Again, Malo uses an arrangement very similar to Dwight’s original and performs the song well. There are horns on this track and they serve to create a swinging effect, even though the tempo is no faster than the Yoakam original.

The album closes with a very nice rendition of the Hy Heath-Fred Rose composition “Take These Chains From My Heart”, best known as a posthumous #1 hit for Hank Williams in 1953, and in 1963, a #8 pop hit Ray Charles (Ray’s version also reached #5 in the UK). The accompaniment on this final track starts out with just a single guitar then expands with the subsequent verses, but remains at all times uncluttered, with tasteful saxophone and piano solos between the vocals.

After Hours is an enjoyable album which I would rate as good, but not great, as it is marred by the tempo errors noted above. Malo is in good voice throughout and he is accompanied by what could be essentially described as a jazz quintet of himself on guitar, Robert Chevrier on piano, Jay Weaver on bass, Tom Lewis on drums and Jim Hoke on sax, clarinet and steel guitar. The album was recorded live, with only Hoke being overdubbed occasionally (it’s tough to play three instruments simultaneously). Malo and producer Evan York, keep the focus on the melodies and lyrics, never obscuring either.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Christmas Comes Alive’

christmascomesaliveThe new six-track EP Christmas Comes Alive marks the first time in 18 years that Marty Raybon and Shenandoah have recorded together. Coincidentally, their last album together was also a Christmas collection. Christmas Comes Alive consists of mostly new material — some of which they wanted to include on their 1996 album, but Capitol insisted on an album of Christmas classics. After a lengthy delay, the original material has finally seen the light of day.

The EP’s opening track is “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which was written by drummer Mike McGuire, who produced the EP with Marty Raybon. It starts out as the familiar children’s nursery rhyme, but it quickly establishes that the little lamb’s name was Jesus. It’s followed by the title track, written by Marty Raybon, Bud McGuire, and Kim Williams. An upbeat number about Santa’s elves preparing for the big day, it is one of the songs that the group had wanted to include on their Christmas album for Capitol.

“Good Ole Fashioned Christmas” and “Family Tree” both revisit familiar themes of family, tradition and traveling home for Christmas. Both are good, if not particularly memorable. The album’s standout track is the closing number “Lullabies In Bethelehem”, a Mike McGuire co-write with Mark Narmore that tells the story of Nativity from the point of view of another traveler to Bethlehem, who took the last room at the inn and would have gladly given it up had he known how desperately it was needed by Mary and Joseph.

The collections sole traditional tune is a very nice rendition of “The First Noel” which fits in very nicely with the newer tunes. There are no Johnny Mathis or Nat King Cole style songs here. No strings or orchestras, just plenty of fiddle, dobro and banjo, the kind of country sound one expects from Shenandoah.

In addition to Christmas Comes Alive, Marty Raybon and Shenandoah are reportedly working on more new music, which is expected to be released next year. If it is as good as this collection, then 2015 is already starting to look like a good year for country music.

Grade: A

Fellow Travelers: Frankie Laine (1913-2007)

frankie-laine-09Born Francesco Paolo LoVecchio, Frankie Laine didn’t see his career as a professional singer reach high gear until after the end of World War II, by which time he was already past thirty years old. Despite this, Frankie Laine put together a recording career that lasted over sixty years, recording for Mercury during the 1940s, Columbia during the 1950s and ABC during the 1960s with numerous one-offs thereafter for a variety of smaller labels.

WHO WAS HE?

Frankie Laine was arguably the biggest pop star of the period between the end of World War II and the breakthrough of rock and roll in 1956. From 1947 through 1956 he charted 60 songs with three #1 records and an additional thirteen that reached the top ten. His biggest hits of the period “That Lucky Old Sun”, “Mule Train” and “Cry of The Wild Goose” became standards covered hundreds of times. During that period he was the most successful American artist on the British pop charts, charting nineteen times between 1952 and 1956 with three chart toppers on different songs than reached #1 in the US.

Frankie Laine made numerous television appearances during the early days of television and had his own shows in 1950, 1954-1955 and 1955-1956. He had a very distinctive voice that lent itself well to pop ballads, rhythm & blues, jazz and country songs. He also recorded songs for a number of movie soundtracks, including the films High Noon and Blazing Saddles.

Frankie Laine had a strong sense of right and wrong. In addition to recording rhythm and blues songs, he was an early supporter of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s. He was the first white artist to appear on The Nat King Cole Show, waiving his fee for appearing and he joined several African-American artists who gave free concerts for Martin Luther King’s supporters during the march to Washington.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?

Although he never charted on the country charts, Frankie Laine recorded many country songs and some of his hits were covered by country artists such as Tennessee Ernie Ford for major country hits. Frankie’s last #1 record (1969 – #1 Easy Listening / #24 pop) “You Gave Me A Mountain” was written by Marty Robbins. One of his #1 records on the British charts, “Hey Joe” was a cover of Carl Smith’s 1953 hit.

In 1990 and 1991 the German Bear Family label collected Frankie’s more western-oriented country songs (mostly Columbia recordings) onto two CDs titled On The Trail and On The Trail Again. I highly recommend both of these collections. While the arrangements are often more Hollywood than country, in the hands of a master craftsman like Laine, they are masterful performances.

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Swing’

swingAlthough there was a swing revival that lasted for a few years (roughly 1998-2003), swing as a musical genre had its heyday during the period from 1935-1946, the period in which swing was America’s popular music. The economics of trying to keep a large band on the road after World War II led to the great swing bands breaking up and the music scene becoming the domain of smaller musical groups and solo singing stars.

Suzy Bogguss falls into that small group of country artists who comfortably perform in a wide variety of musical genres. Western, folk, country, pop and jazz all are areas which Ms. Bogguss has conquered.

The title of the album, Swing, suggests an album full of classic swing-era music from the Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie era. I would love for Suzy to record such an album, but this one isn’t it, although she does reach into the past for some classic swing numbers.

Swing could be described as Suzy’s tribute to modern day swing/jazz, with five of the twelve songs on the album coming from the pen of April Barrows.  Ms. Barrows, an excellent singer in her own right, composes and sings songs with the feel of swing, but with more modern and introspective lyrics than customarily found in the swing of the big band era.

In order to achieve an authentic feel for this album, Suzy engaged country music’s leading purveyor of swing, Ray Benson and members of Asleep at the Wheel.  Ray Benson plays guitar, Floyd Domino is on piano, David Sanger beats and brushes the drums and Jason Roberts plays fiddle.   Suzy and Ray produced the album.

Swing opens up with the Nat King Cole-Irving Mills composition “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, a major hit for the Nat King Cole Trio during the middle 1940s reaching #1 on the Harlem Hit Parade and spending six weeks at #1 on Billboard’s country chart . The song was based on a folk tale that Cole’s minister father had used as a theme for one of his sermons. In the song, a buzzard who had been taking different animals for joy rides would bounce them off and eat them after they were smashed on the rocks below. The monkey who is riding the buzzard in this humorous song is much too smart to fall for this trick, hanging onto the buzzard’s neck, with the admonition to “straighten up and fly right”.  There are people who swear that Nat King Cole was the best male vocalist ever in any genre of popular music (they may be right). Suzy handles the song effectively, although perhaps not with the quite the humor permeating her vocal that Cole had in his version.

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Album Review: ‘Brad Paisley Christmas’

The following review was written by MKOC reader and commenter Ken Johnson:

My favorite holiday albums are those that reflect the true style and sound of the individual artist. Nothing has been more disappointing than when my favorite country star abandoned their distinctive style to morph into Nat “King” Cole or Bing Crosby complete with a lush orchestra and chorus. Brad Paisley did not make that mistake. His 2006 Brad Paisley Christmas CD mixed all-time standards with original holiday songs to perfectly mirror his style, personality, humor and versatility. Those are also the very qualities that helped Brad to win the Entertainer Of The Year Award from the CMA this year.

A bright and twangy “Winter Wonderland” leads off the collection. Brad modified the lyrics by adding lines about fellow Grand Ole Opry member Jim Ed Brown. He gave nods to two of Jim Ed’s best known hits: “Pop A Top” and “The Three Bells.”

In the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is Jim Ed Brown.
We’ll sing “Pop A Top” with Mr. Snowman with chapel bells a-ringing all around.

“Santa Looked A Lot like Daddy” revives the Buck Owens – Don Rich 1965 holiday classic. Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt both recorded versions for their Christmas albums during the 1990’s that have kept this song alive on country radio holiday playlists. Brad doesn’t spare the twang here either by adding extended improvisational instrumental solos.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” begins with the song’s often deleted original intro.

I am dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do.
And although I know it’s a long road back, I promise you
I’ll be home for Christmas…

Brad’s laid back vocal blends perfectly with understated orchestration punctuated by outstanding lead guitar solos and smooth steel guitar and fiddle fills. This is my favorite track on the CD.

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