My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Nat Stuckey

Album Review: Dallas Wayne – ‘Songs The Jukebox Taught Me’

songs the jukebox taught meCountry DJ-singer-songwriter Dallas Wayne has a big booming voice which has not been heard on record for a while; his last album was released back in 2009. Now signed to traditionalist label Heart Of Texas Records, his fantastic new album shares some less familiar cover tunes which offer a solid honky tonk reminder of what country used to be.

Willie Nelson duets with Dallas on the lively shuffle ‘Your Time’s Comin’’, which was a #4 hit for Faron Young in 1969, and was written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein. The cynical lyric relates a hookup with a woman who claims to be a neglected wife, but turns out to be an unrepentant serial cheater:

Just as I got up to leave
He walked through the door
And I guess that I thought he’d be surprised
But he looked at me as if to say
He’d been there before
And he offered me this word to the wise

He said, “you know she’s a cheater, son
But you believe that you’re the one
Who’s got a lot of what it takes to change her
And I’ve no doubt that you can get her
You ain’t much but that don’t matter
Nothing suits her better than a stranger
And the stranger man, the better
The chances are she’ll set her eyes on you
The next time she goes slummin’
So just sit back and wait your turn, boy
You got lots of time to learn, boy
Cool it while you can,
‘Cause your time’s comin’

Well, it happens that in time
It happened just like he said
And soon enough her shoes
Were sittin’ under my bed
And I’ll confess I did my best
To prove that man had lied
But nothing short of suicide
Could keep her satisfied

He ends up passing on the same advice to his successor.

Another Faron Young hit, ‘Three Days’ was written by Young with Willie Nelson. This has a loungier feel to the vocal.

Another enjoyable shuffle, ‘A Dime At A Time’, is about someone who is both broke and broken hearted, killing time one jukebox tune after another. It was a #12 hit for Del Reeves in 1967.

The mournful ballad ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights In Your World Tonight’ (a top 40 hit for Mel Street in 1980 and recorded by many other artists including George Jones and neotraditionalist Ricky Van Shelton) is loaded with steel and an emotional vocal does it justice.

The Nashville sound gets represented as well as the hardcore honky tonkers, with a string-laden version of Vern Gosdin’s 1977 top 10 hit ‘Yesterday’s Gone’. Willie Nelson’s daughter Paula guests on this, taking the part Emmylou Harris did on the original. It can’t match the exquisite original, but is still a nice recording with a strongly emotional reading.

‘No Relief In Sight’ is a stellar lost-love ballad which has been recorded a number of times, and is done well here. The sentimental Hank Jr ballad ‘Eleven Roses’ is also beautifully sung, with the song’s co-writer Darrell McCall’s wife Mona providing a harmony vocal.

‘It Just Doesn’t Seem To Matter’ was written by Jeannie Seely for herself and duet partner Jack Greene. She lends a hand on Dallas’s version, and while her voice is not what it was in her youth, the song itself is a fine one. ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’, another Seely composition, is a deeply sad ballad:

In more ways than one way I was her clown

She always got what she wanted
She got what she wanted for free
She always got what she wanted
Lord I wish that she wanted me

‘Sun Comin’ Up’ is a Nat Stuckey song I hadn’t heard before, but I was struck by the tune’s strong similarity to that of Randy Travis’s ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’. The upbeat feel of the melody is belied by a remorselessly dark lyric depicting a homeless alcoholic:

It’s that time of the mornin’ when the sun starts comin’ up
And I’m standin’ on the corner with my guitar and my cup
And I’m waitin’ for some people to come by and fill it up
But the sun ain’t come up yet this morning
I spend nights in the barrooms for the small change I can make
But the money don’t repay me for the things I have to take
Somebody buys me liquor, then they laugh at how I shake
But it makes my sun come up each morning
See that man with the spit-shine on his shoes, I know him well
He’ll slip me half a dollar, walk on by me, turn and yell
“Hey, that five spot ain’t for liquor!”
Well, he can go to hell
‘Cause he just made my sun come up this morning

Lord, I wish I could remember how it feels to be a man
To get knocked down and have the guts to get back up again
And know that I don’t really need this bottle in my hand
To make my sun come up each morning
I guess the devil knows he’s got me when the bottle does me in
Hell can’t be no worse than places I’ve already been
And I don’t wanna go to heaven
‘Cause I hear there ain’t no gin
To make my sun come up each morning

Dallas is very believable on this, and also on another powerful anti-alcohol anthem, ‘Devil In The Bottle’, a 1974 chart topper for T G Sheppard. The social commentary of ‘Skip A Rope’ still hits home, too.

‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ is delivered briskly and is pleasant but inessential listening, at least in comparison to the rest of the album. ‘Stop The World And Let me Off’ balances pace and emotion more effectively and is rather enjoyable.

Overall, this is an excellent reminder of what real country music sounds like. I thoroughly recommend it.

Grade: A+

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+

Reissues wish list: part 3 – RCA and Columbia

carl smithWhen speaking of the big four labels we need to define terms
Columbia refers to records originally issued on Columbia, Epic, Harmony or Okeh labels. Okeh was used for so-called minority interest recordings. Columbia also owned Vocalion for a while. RCA refers to recordings on the RCA Victor and RCA Camden labels.

RCA

In addition to folks such as Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Eddy Arnold, Connie Smith and Charley Pride, RCA had a fine group of second tier artists including Kenny Price, Porter Wagoner, Jim Ed Brown, Stu Phillips, Nat Stuckey, Jimmy Dean, Norma Jean, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West, Bobby Bare, The Browns and Jerry Reed.

Bear Family has released multiple boxed sets on several RCA artists including Connie Smith, Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow who have multiple boxed sets (essentially everything Hank Snow recorded while on RCA – forty plus years worth of recordings is available on Bear). Enough Waylon has been released that what remains doesn’t justify a wish list.

What is really needed is for someone to issue decent sets on Kenny Price, Jim Ed Brown (without his sisters or Helen Cornelius), Norma Jean, Dottsy, Liz Anderson and Earl Thomas Conley. There is virtually nothing on any of these artists. Jimmy Dean recorded for RCA for about six years but nothing is available from his RCA years which saw some really fine recordings, including the best version of “A Thing Called Love“.

I would have said the same thing about Charley Pride but recent years have seen various Charley Pride sets become available, so we can take him off our wish list.

COLUMBIA RECORDS

When you think of Columbia Records, names such as Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Stonewall Jackson, Flatt & Scruggs and Marty Robbins spring immediately to mind, but the well is deep and that doesn’t even count sister label Epic which boasted names like David Houston, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, Jody Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Bob Luman.

By and large foreign and domestic reissues abound for most of the bigger names, but even here there are some major shortfalls.

Carl Smith recorded for Columbia through the early 1970s and while his 1950s output has been thoroughly mined, his sixties output has barely been touched and his seventies output (“Mama Bear”, “Don’t Say Goodbye”) completely neglected. Smith’s recordings increasingly veered toward western swing as the sixties wore on, but he recorded a fine bluegrass album, and a tribute to fellow East Tennessean Roy Acuff. His outstanding Twenty Years of Hits (1952-1972) recast twenty of his classic tunes as western swing. A good three CD set seems in order.

I could make a good case for electing David Houston to the Country Music Hall of Fame. From 1966 he had thirteen #1 hits and a bunch more top ten and top twenty recordings. “Almost Persuaded” was his biggest hit but there were bunches of good songs scattered across his many albums. A good two CD set is a must, and I could easily justify a three CD set.

While Sony Legacy issued a decent Johnny Paycheck single disc hits collection, it is long on the later stages of his career and short on the earliest years. Paycheck released over thirty singles for Epic from 1972–1982 and it’s about time someone collected them on a good two (or preferably three) disc collection along with some key album cuts.

Moe Bandy achieved his greatest commercial success while recording for Columbia. Between chart singles and album cuts Moe warrants at least a decent two CD set, and please leave the ‘Moe & Joe’ nonsense out of the mix.

Columbia has a lot of artists that would justify a single or double disc hits collection: David Wills, Al Dexter, Ted Daffan, David Rodgers, Connie Smith, Carl & Pearl Butler, Tommy Cash, David Frizzell, Bob Luman, Jody Miller, Barbara Fairchild, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Walker and Sammi Smith.

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’

my heroes have always been countryA new album from Gene Watson always is cause for celebration, and My Heroes Have Always Been Country is no exception to the rule. What you get with this album is eleven excellent traditional country songs sung by one of the best male vocalists in the business. Although Gene is now seventy years old, his voice is still in fine shape although perhaps pitched a little lower than in his prime.

The album kicks off with Dottie West’s biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”. The song won Dottie a Grammy in 1965 and provided her with her first solo top ten record in 1964. Gene’s version is true to the spirit of the original recording although minus the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings of strings and choral accompaniment. I don’t know if the effect was intentional, but the female backing singer, Cindy Walker, sounds like Dottie West would in singing harmony on the choruses of this song. Producer Dirk Johnson’s work on keyboards is prominently featured in the arrangement as are the fiddle of Aubrey Haynie and the steel guitars of Mike Johnson and Sonny Garrish.

Here comes more tears to cry
Here comes more heartaches by
Here comes my baby, back again
Here comes more misery
Here comes old memories
Here comes my baby, back again

“Don’t You Believe Her” comes from the pen of Nat Stuckey. While never a hit single, both Ray Price and Conway Twitty had nice recordings of the song as album tracks

She can give you a reason to live if she wants to She can make you forget other loves that you have known She has two lips and two arms that thrill you as very few do And if you want her to give them to you, just ask and she will

Don’t you believe her – I did and soon she’ll be leaving me
Don’t you believe her – if you do then soon she’ll be leaving you too

It takes a brave man to cover Johnny Paycheck’s “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” (a number seven hit for Paycheck in 1977) but Gene is up to the task. In fact I actually like Gene’s version better than the original.

Gene has been featuring Hank Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” in recent performances, and why not? Although the song was a hit at least three times (Timi Yuro, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold) it is a great song well worth hearing again. Gene’s version is a little more straight-forward country than the Price or Arnold versions, but Gene is as skilled and nuanced a singer as either Ray or Eddy and delivers a memorable performance of the song.

“The Long Black Veil” receives a dramatic, but not melodramatic, reading from Gene Watson that burnishes the Danny Dill / Marijohn Wilkin classic with a new luster. I think Lefty Frizzell would approve of Gene’s version.

I suppose you can’t do an album of modern classic country without reaching into the Merle Haggard song bag. In this case Gene has pulled out a tune written by Glenn Martin and Hank Cochran titled “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. Gene has always been the master of the medium-slow ballad and this song is no exception.

No, it’s not love, not like ours was, it’s not love
But it keeps love from driving me mad
And I don’t have to wonder who she’s had
No, it’s not love but it’s not bad

Haggard took “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” to number one in November 1972.

Gene reached deep into the George Jones catalog and found the Sandra Seamans / Kay Savage-penned “Walk Through This World With Me”. The song spent two weeks at number one in 1967 and is one of the many great songs that George recorded for the Musicor label. For my money, the best George Jones recordings came from the United Artists and Musicor labels during the 1960s. I prefer George’s recording but just by a hair.

Walk through this world with me,
Go where I go
Share all my my dreams with me,
I need you so
In life we search and some of us find
I’ve looked for you a long, long time

And now that I’ve found you,
New horizons I see
Come take my hand
And walk through this world with me

Those of us over 60 remember “(Turn Out The Lights) The Party’s Over” as the song ‘Dandy Don’ Meredith sang on ABC Monday Night Football as soon as the game was out of hand and the winner inevitable. Younger folks may remember hearing the venerable songwriter Willie Nelson sing it in concert. After hearing Gene’s version, you’ll think of it as a Gene Watson classic.

“I Forget You Everyday” was written by Merle Haggard but was never issued as a single. The truth is that during his peak years Merle Haggard was writing more great songs than he could ever get around to issuing as singles. Consequently, this song languished as an album cut on one of Hag’s fine Capitol albums, unheard to any but those who purchased the album. I hope Gene issues this as a single, although I don’t expect radio will play the song.

Memory is a gift a man can’t live without
And in times we can’t control the things we think about
So sometimes I still remember you in every way
But for a little while I forget you every day

“Count Me Out” was written by Jeanne Pruett, a song that she recorded for RCA during the mid-1960s. It didn’t chart for her and Marty Robbins’ 1966 recording of the song only reached number fourteen but it’s a really good song and kudos to Gene for unearthing it.

Taking me for granted was your first mistake
And that was the beginning of my last heartache.
And then you added insult to my injury
When you started treating me just as you please.

Count me out of future plans you might be making.
No more foolish chances am I taking.
You played love’s game too rough.
As for me, I’ve had enough
‘Cause the going’s got too rough so count me out.

Gene closes out this album with a song commonly associated with Buck Owens. Although Buck never issued the record as a single, he did cut it as an album cut and kept it in his live shows for a decade. Orville Couch co-wrote “Hello Trouble” and took it to number five in 1962. In 1989 the Desert Rose Band took it to number eleven on both the US and Canadian country charts. The song is a short (1:55) up-tempo song that makes a perfect closing note for yet another fine album. While cheerful in its sound and feel, the narrator of the song knows that the cheer is but of short duration.

Gene Watson covers no new ground in this recording, instead doing what he does best, singing good and great songs as well as anyone ever will sing them.

Producer Dirk Johnson’s production is solidly modern traditional country with fiddle and steel featured prominently throughout. In lieu of the symphonic strings featured on the original versions of some of these songs, fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Gail Rudisill-Johnson have created some nice string arrangements that complement the songs without overwhelming them.

Although hardly an essential part of the Gene Watson canon (except to the extent that every Gene Watson album is essential), it will please all of his many fans and hopefully gain him some new fans.

Grade: A (or 4.5 Stars)

Classic Rewind: Nat Stuckey – ‘Cut Across, Shorty’

Country Heritage: Jim Ed Brown

jim ed brownJim Ed Brown has had three separate and distinct recording careers within country music. The first career ran from 1952 to ’54 and found him paired initially with sister Maxine and later with sisters Maxine and Bonnie (1955-67). After the Browns disbanded (Bonnie and Maxine left to raise families), he had a successful career as a solo artist for the next eight years (1967-74). Then, after his solo career as a hit-maker ground to a halt, he took on a third wind with a series of successful duet recordings with Helen Cornelius.

Born in 1934, in Sparkman, Arkansas, Jim Ed Brown was one of five children (two boys and three girls) of a struggling lumberman and his wife. Like many rural families his family would gather on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery powered radio. Brown and his older sister, Maxine, were especially interested in what they heard on the radio and soon began singing together. Within a few years they were performing on local radio shows.

Career #1

By Brown’s second year of college, he and Maxine were regulars on the Barnyard Frolic on KRLA in Little Rock. In 1954, they wrote their first hit song “Looking Back To See” which charted at #8 for the duo. A cover version by Justin Tubb and Goldie Hill also charted, reaching # 4.

Released on the Faber label in 1954, “Looking Back To See” provided the duo with momentum, leading to membership on the Louisiana Hayride. From there they joined Red Foley as featured regulars on the Ozark Jubilee in 1955. Toward the end of 1955, younger sister Bonnie joined the act and they scored their second top ten record with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” With encouragement from their former Faber label mate Jim Reeves, RCA signed the group in 1956, and two Cashbox #1s followed with “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebird Sing” (both fell just short of #1 on Billboard). In 1957, Jim Ed was invited to join Uncle Sam for a two year stretch in the US Army. By the time he returned in 1959, RCA had become immersed in the ‘Nashville Sound’ and the label pointed the group toward the pop charts, succeeding in a big way with “The Three Bells” which was #1 for ten weeks and spent four weeks at #1 on the pop charts and sold millions of copies. This was followed by “Scarlet Ribbons” (#7 country/#13 pop) and “The Old Lamplighter” (#20 country / #5 pop). In 1962, the trio joined the Grand Ole Opry.

Unfortunately, the focus on the pop charts cost the group their core country audience, and they would have no further top 10 country hits. Meanwhile the pop audiences moved elsewhere as the ‘British Invasion’ changed the pop landscape. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Nat Stuckey – ‘Sweet Thang’

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Just For What I Am’

The past decade or so hasn’t produced much great country music, forcing many fans to mine the back catalogs of some of the genre’s legends, in search of material that they might have initially overlooked. Germany’s Bear Family Records has released numerous extensive box sets of many legendary artists and in doing so has been a Godsend to fans of classic country music. Last month they released a second set of Connie Smith’s music, a little more than a week after it was announced that the Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry would finally be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Just For What I Am
is a companion piece to 2001’s Born To Sing, picking up where the earlier collection left off. Together the two collections represent the singer’s entire RCA catalog, marking the first time in decades that many of these classic recordings have been commercially available. It covers the period from 1967 through 1972, and contains 151 tracks, spanning five discs. It contains 14 Top 20 singles, several Gospel numbers, and Connie’s take on many of the then-current hits of her contemporaries, such as Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings. It also contains nine tracks that were never released by RCA. The highest charting single in the collection is “Just One Time”, a Don Gibson number that Connie took to #2 in 1971. My personal favorites among the singles are “I Never Once Stopped Loving You” written by Bill Anderson and Jan Howard, and the Dallas Frazier compositions “Where Is My Castle” and “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)”, both of which feature the great Johnny Gimble on fiddle and stands in stark contrast to the countrypolitan that was dominating the country charts at the time.

Smith’s singles from this era were great, but most of them have been available for quite some time on the small handful of compilations that RCA saw fit to release on CD. The real gems are the album cuts, most of which have been unavailable since their initial release 40 years ago or more. Of particular interest are the covers of other artists’ hits. Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” seems like an unlikely choice for Connie Smith, but she attacks it with gusto, altering the lyrics slightly to represent the female point of view. Jerry Reed’s “Natchilly Ain’t No Good” gets a similar treatment, as do Conway Twitty’s signature tunes “Hello, Darlin'” and “I Can’t Believe You Stopped Loving Me”. Her rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Before I’m Over You” rivals the original, and her version of “Here Comes My Baby” is superior to Dottie West’s Grammy winning record. My favorite of the cover songs is “If My Heart Had Windows”, which had been a Top 10 for George Jones in 1967. Patty Loveless would later score her first Top 10 hit when she covered the tune in 1988. Another highlight is Harlan Howard’s heartbreaking “The Deepening Snow”. I’d previously heard this song on Tammy Wynette’s 1992 box set; inexplicably, neither Wynette’s nor Smith’s version was ever released as a single.

It was common in the 60s and 70s for male and female labelmates to become duet partners. RCA wanted to pair Connie up with Waylon Jennings, but she resisted, fearing that a hit Jennings-Smith duet would require her to spend more time on the road promoting it. In retrospect, it’s regrettable because Jennings and Smith would have been an amazing pairing. Instead, Connie teamed up with Nat Stuckey, a singer-songwriter who had written such hits as Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop A Top” and Buck Owens’ “Waiting In Your Welfare Line”, and who would go on to co-write “Diggin’ Up Bones” with Paul Overstreet and Al Gore (not the former Vice President). That tune would become a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 1986. Smith recorded two duet albums with Stuckey, and although he was a fine vocalist, it is here that the material falters a bit. Still, there are some gems among their duets. I especially like their take on The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” and the Gospel standard “Whispering Hope.” Connie also recorded a handful of duets with Dallas Frazier, who is a great songwriter but not much of a singer.

Among the previously unreleased tracks are Connie’s interpretations of Mel Tillis’and Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”, Johnny Paycheck’s “(S)he’s All I Got”, Porter Wagoner’s “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” and Dottie West’s somewhat sappy “Country Girl”.

Producer Bob Ferguson was largely responsible for creating the unique Connie Smith sound, but much of the credit should go to steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, who was featured prominently on many of Connie’s recordings. His tribute “Connie’s Song” closes out the collection. It is a steel guitar-led instrumental medley of some of Connie’s biggest hits: “Once A Day, “Then and Only Then”, and “I Can’t Remember”.

Just For What I Am
comes with extensive liner notes written by Barry Mazor, which are contained in a hardcover book. Like all Bear Family projects, it is beautifully packaged and contains a wealth of material, however, it avoids the trap of exhausting the listener with multiple takes of the same song, false starts and studio chatter which were characteristics of many other Bear Family releases. It is expensive, and will probably only appeal to diehard fans. The price, however, can be rationalized by taking into account that it contains twelve albums’ worth of material. If you’ve got some extra cash in your music budget, it is well worth checking out.

Grade: A+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 7

For part seven of this series, as always, just some songs I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit, (although I feel free to comment on other songs by the artist).

I’m Having Your Baby” – Sunday Sharpe (1974)
Female answer to a rather lame Paul Anka hit with the answer song being better (or at least more believable) than the original. Ms. Sharpe originally was from Orlando, FL, but seemingly has disappeared from view. This song reached #10 on Cashbox, her only Top 10 hit (#11 Billboard). A few years later she had one more top twenty hit with “A Little At A Time”.

“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” – Billy Joe Shaver (1973)
For a guy whose only two charting records charted at 88 and 80, and who can’t sing a lick, Billy Joe Shaver has had a heck of a career as a recording artist, issuing several acclaimed albums. Of course, his main claim to fame is as a songwriter.

Slippin’ Away” – Jean Shepard (1973)
Jean took this Bill Anderson composition to #1 (Cashbox) reviving a career that Capitol had abandoned. Jean was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, an honor two decades overdue.

Devil In The Bottle” – T.G. Sheppard (1975)
T.G. kicked off his career as a singer under the T.G. Sheppard name (real name Bill Browder, and recorded also as Brian Stacey) with consecutive #1s. T.G. would have fourteen #1 singles between 1975 and ’86, along with three more that reached #2 . He worked for Elvis at one point, before kicking off his solo career.

Greystone Chapel” – Glen Sherley (1970)
This song first saw the light of day when Johnny Cash recorded it for the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album in 1968. At the time Glen Sherley was a prisoner at Folsom. This was his only chart record, reaching #63. In addition to this song, Sherley had several other songs he’d written recorded, most notably Eddy Arnold’s recording of “Portrait of My Woman.” Johnny Cash helped get Glen Sherley released from prison, and even had him as part of his road show for a while. Unfortunately, Glen Sherley was unable to adapt to life outside of prison, and committed suicide in 1978.

Dog Tired of Cattin’ Around” – Shylo (1976)
An amusing tune, Shylo recorded for Columbia during the years 1976-1979. This single charted at #75. Columbia would release eight charting singles but none went higher than #63.

I’m A Truck” – Red Simpson (1971)
A truck tells its side of the story:

There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
No double-clutching gear- jamming coffee drinking nuts
They’ll drive their way to glory and they have all the luck
There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
.

Red’s biggest hit, in fact his only top 30 record, reaching #1 Cashbox/#4 Billboard. Simpson was from Bakersfield and co-wrote a number of songs with Buck Owens, many of which Buck recorded, including “Sam’s Place” and “Kansas City Song.” Junior Brown recently recorded Red’s “Highway Patrol.” Curiously enough, “I’m A Truck” was not written by Red Simpson, but came from the pen of Bob Stanton, who worked as a mailman and sent Red the song.

Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” – Patsy Sledd (1972)
Great debut recording – it only reached #68 but unknown to Ms. Sledd, her record label was created as a tax write off, so that there was no promotional push for anyone by the label. The next single “Chip Chip” reached #33 but from there it was all downhill. Patsy was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show for a few years.

The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” – Cal Smith (1973)
Bill Anderson wrote it and Cal Smith took it to #1 on March 3, 1973. Cal only had four Top 10 records, but three of them went to #1. His biggest chart hit was “It’s Time To Pay The Fiddler,” but this song and “Country Bumpkin” are probably the best remembered songs for the former member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.   Cal actually changed a few of the words from what Bill had written, probably a change for the better.

“Mama Bear” – Carl Smith (1972)
Carl only had one Top 10 song after 1959 and this song wasn’t it, dying at #46. By the time this record was issued, Carl was 45 years old and his career as a recording artist was stone-cold dead but that doesn’t mean he quit making good records. Carl issued many good records in the 1970s, but only “Pull My String and Wind Me Up” and “How I Love Them Old Songs” would reach the top twenty. Read more of this post

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Storms of Life’

Country music enjoyed one of its cyclical popularity booms in the early 1980s, in large part thanks to the success of the film Urban Cowboy. At that time, most artists had crossover ambitions and the music became more and more pop-oriented, but there was a quiet backlash brewing. It started roughly around 1981 with the major label debuts of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait and it continued through 1984 with the release of Reba McEntire’s landmark My Kind of Country album, and The Judds’ commercial breakthrough hit “Mama He’s Crazy”. Still, these artists were very much the exception rather than the rule. By mid-decade, the Urban Cowboy craze was over, and country music was once again in the commercial doldrums. No one took much notice when an unknown singer named Randy Traywick was signed to a singles deal with Warner Bros in 1985, but within a year Traywick, rechristened Randy Travis by the label, would be the hottest commodity in country music.

Randy’s first release was the Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet composition “On The Other Hand”, a hardcore traditional ballad, which along with Randy’s nasal baritone, had no crossover appeal whatsoever and was not what radio wanted. Consequently, it died at #67 on the charts. Randy and producer Kyle Lehning were unrepentant. Fortunately, Warner Bros. allowed them to try again with the equally traditional “1982”. Written by Buddy Blackmon and Vip Vipperman, the song’s original title was “1962”, but the writers granted Randy permission to change the lyrics to something more age-appropriate. To everyone’s surprise, radio took notice this time and “1982” managed to climb all the way to #6. Encouraged by this success, Warner Bros. made the unusual decision to re-release “On The Other Hand” in April 1986. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now that Randy had a legitimate hit under his belt, radio programmers were now willing to give “On The Other Hand” a listen, and it quickly shot to #1.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about Randy Travis, who quickly returned to the studio to record an album to capitalize on the success of “On The Other Hand.” When the album was near completion, he and Kyle Lehning expressed their hope that they could sell 50,000 to 60,000 copies so the label would allow them to record a second album. Clearly they didn’t realize that they were about to alter the course of country music for the next several years. Storms of Life was single-handedly responsible for country music’s return to its roots after decades of what seemed to be an inevitable drift towards pop. As a result, what would soon be known as the New Traditionalist movement was now firmly underway as other artists, old and new, including some of Nashville’s most pop-leaning acts, followed Randy’s example and began releasing more traditional-sounding music. Those who did not were unceremoniously purged from the radio airwaves.

The album reached store shelves in June 1986, nearly one year to the day after the initial release of “On The Other Hand.” It was produced by Kyle Lehning, with Keith Stegall co-producing on two tracks. It contained both “On The Other Hand” and “1982”, along with Randy’s own composition “Reasons I Cheat”, which had been the B-side to “1982”, as well as seven newly-recorded songs. The uptempo “Diggin’ Up Bones”, written by Paul Overstreet, Nat Stuckey and Al Gore (not the former US Vice President), was the next to be sent to radio and like its predecessor, it quickly rose to #1. By now Randy was now being interviewed by the mainstream press, who openly pondered the last time they’d heard the word “exhuming” used in a song. Yet another Paul Overstreet composition, “No Place Like Home” was selected for the album’s fourth and final single. This song is somewhat forgotten today, but it is one of Randy’s best ballad performances. It peaked at #2 in the spring of 1987.

Storms of Life is one of those rare albums that contains no filler, which is great from a fan’s point of view but it makes a critic’s job much more difficult because it isn’t possible to talk about an album’s flaws when there simply aren’t any. All ten tracks are strong enough to have been successful singles. It’s difficult to choose favorites, but if pressed I’d have to go with “My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)” and “Messin’ With My Mind”, both of which show the extent to which Lefty Frizzell influenced Randy’s music, as well as “Send My Body” and “Reasons I Cheat”, both of which allowed Randy to showcase his songwriting skills. “Send My Body” is a surprisingly upbeat sounding song about a condemned man, who despite his innocence, is determined to meet his fate with poise and grace, requesting that his body be returned to his hometown for burial. “Reasons I Cheat” is another beautifully performed ballad. As its title implies, it’s a cheating song, but one in which the protagonist expresses few feelings of guilt, but rather seeks to rationalize his actions and does so quite effectively, because, surprisingly, he comes across as a sympathetic figure.

It’s a gross understatement to call Storms of Life a landmark album, as its importance can not be overstated. I consider it to be one of the finest country albums of all time, and the most significant one released during my own lifetime. Far exceeding Travis’ and Lehning’s modest sales ambitions, it ultimately earned triple platinum certification at a time when even gold-level sales for country albums were rare. As a result, it caused a shake-up of the entire country genre, the likes of which had never seen before, and will probably never been seen again. Sadly, within a few years of its release, country music lapsed back towards pop, a trend that continues to the current day.

It is nothing short of a disgrace that Warner Bros. has allowed the 25th anniversary of Storms of Life’s release to pass without a remastered and expanded re-release; however the album is still in print in its original form and easy to find.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent – ‘Your Money And My Good Looks’

What happens when you pair the best male country vocalist of the last 35 years with the reigning Queen of bluegrass music ? You get the best album that will be released in 2011. I can think of no recent duet album that I’ve enjoyed as much as this album. Released on the Upper Management Music label, this album contains the warning ‘Contains REAL Country Music’, and truer words never were spoken.

Although Rhonda is a bluegrass artist, and there are touches of bluegrass on a few of the tracks, this basically is a modern traditional country album, with fiddles, steel guitar and truly outstanding vocals, both individually and in harmony with each other.

The title cut is probably the weakest cut on the album. This isn’t to say that Gene and Rhonda don’t sing it well, because they do, but the song itself is nothing special. The next two tracks “Gone For Good”, a slow ballad about breaking up, and “It Ain’t Nothing New” a mid-tempo ballad co-written by bluegrass legend Larry Cordle, are both really good songs, and on many albums they would be the standout tracks but on this album they are merely the hors d’oeuvres.

With the fourth track the album shifts into overdrive with a cover of Gene Watson’s 1976 hit “You Could Know As Much About A Stranger”. I had never thought about this song as a duet, but it works really well, as Gene and Rhonda trade verses and duet on the choruses, accompanied by a lightly updated version of Gene’s original backing.

From here the album covers a 1977 hit written by Cathy Gosdin for her brother Vern Gosdin, “Til The End”. Covering Vern Gosdin is a treacherous task at best, and while I regard Gene Watson as being the superior overall vocalist, Vern Gosdin had no peers at singing melancholy slow ballads. Still Gene and Rhonda do an admirable job on the song.

The Billy Yates-penned “Alone Together Tonight” is a clever twist on the theme of a lonely boy and lonely girl in a honky-tonk. The melody reminds me of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Would You Catch A Falling Star”.

Next up is a cover of Gary Stewart’s 1974 hit “Out Of Hand”. The arrangement and instrumentation are very similar to Stewart’s recording, but with very slight alterations to the lyrics, it makes a very successful male-female duet.

“This Wanting You” was co-written by Bruce Boulton, T. Graham Brown and Bruce Burch. I don’t recall the song being issued as a single but it was one of the standout tracks on TGB’s 1988 album Come As You Were and also appeared on a Bruce Burch collection.

“Making Everything Perfect Tonight” was penned by Rhonda Vincent, a spirited mid-tempo romp about life and one of the joys of domestic life.

“Sweet Thang” was a top five for its author Nat Stuckey in 1966; however, no one remembers Nat’s version anymore because of the spirited version done by the dynamic duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn the following year. While the ET-LL version wasn’t a big radio hit, it was a popular concert favorite for years to follow. Gene doesn’t have quite the same degree of ‘rascal’ in his voice that Ernest did, but his vocals are better.

Saving the best for last, Gene and Rhonda demonstrate their blues chops on the old Hank Williams classic, “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. The track runs over five minutes so even in the good old days, it wouldn’t have received much airplay. I referred to Gene Watson as the best male vocalist currently performing in country music today but Rhonda Vincent may be the best female vocalist in country music, although most of her efforts have been focused on bluegrass. Rhonda had a crack at becoming a mainstream country star on Giant Records back in the 1990s but was let down by the material the label foisted off on her. Carrie Underwood should listen to this track, as she could learn a lot about singing from Rhonda’s vocals on this track. Carrie has a vocal range very similar to Rhonda’s but with much less command and control of her vocal abilities.

There actually is a ‘bonus track’ on the album, a bluegrass instrumental “Ashes of Mount Augustine, featuring Michael Rojas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Johnson, Michael Rhodes and James Mitchell.

This album won’t be released until June 6, 2011. By then I will have listened to the album a couple dozen times !

Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003)

Readers of The 9513 will be familiar with Paul W. Dennis’ excellent Country Heritage (aka Forgotten Artists) series. We are pleased to announce that Paul has agreed to continue the column for My Kind of Country:

A few years ago, the venerable Ralph Stanley issued an album titled A Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Grayson and Whitter. Neither Grayson nor Whitter, a musical partnership of the late 1920s, lived to be fifty years old. Beyond that I don’t know much about the duo, but the title certainly would apply to the life of Gary Stewart.

Gary Stewart was a hard rocking, hard drinking artist who arrived at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Often described as “too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio”, Gary simply arrived on the market at the wrong time for his rocking brand of hard-core honky-tonk music to achieve general acceptance, for his music was neither outlaw nor countrypolitan, the two dominant strains of country music during the 1970s.

Gary Stewart was born in Kentucky, the son of a coal miner who suffered a disabling injury when Gary was a teenager. As a result Gary’s family relocated to Fort Pierce, Florida, where Gary learned to play guitar and piano and started writing songs. Playing the clubs at night, while working a full-time job in an airplane factory, Gary had the good fortune to meet Mel Tillis. Mel encouraged Gary to travel to Nashville to pitch his songs. While early recording efforts for minor labels failed to interest radio, Gary achieved some success pitching songs to other artists. Among the early efforts were “Poor Red Georgia Dirt”, a 1965 hit for Stonewall Jackson and “Sweet Thang and Cisco” a top ten record for Nat Stuckey in 1969 . Other artists also recorded his songs, most notably Billy Walker (“She Goes Walking Through My Mind,” “Traces of a Woman,” “It’s Time to Love Her”) and Cal Smith (“You Can’t Housebreak a Tomcat”, “It Takes Me All Night Long”).

In 1968 Gary was signed by Kapp Records where he recorded several unsuccessful singles. Disheartened, Gary headed back to Fort Pierce, again playing the skull orchards and juke joints.
Read more of this post

Honky Tonk Angels and Texas Troubadours, a look at Loretta Lynn’s singing partners

In the mid 1980s, Dolly Parton came up with the idea of an album pairing herself with her contemporaries Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.  But for one reason or another, it just never came together for nearly a decade.   Finally, during the country boom of the early 90s, the project came to life. Produced by Dolly Parton and Steve Buckingham, Honky Tonk Angels was a celebration of the sounds of yesterday and a less-than-subtle reminder of the abundance of talent being overlooked by country radio at the time. One single from the album stalled at #68 on the country singles chart in 1993 (a second failed to chart at all), but the album itself would land at #6 on the sales-based albums chart, and would go on to be certified gold, proving the continued demand for legendary stars.

Honky Tonk Angels opens with a graceful take on ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, the song that made Kitty Wells a star.  Kitty is even featured as a vocalist here in the song’s second verse, and provides harmony for the rest of the track, to great effect.  Another country female vocalist standard, ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’, originally a hit for the Davis Sisters, is given the rootsy treatment of a scaled back arrangement and resonant harmonies.  Wells isn’t the only star to make a guest appearance on the album.  Patsy Cline’s vocal is added electronically to a cover of ‘Lovesick Blues’, allowing the departed songstress to take the lead vocal while the trio of Parton, Lynn, and Wynette provide harmony vocals as well as a few cat calls and ad-libs to give the track a live feel.

A music video was made for the punchy version of ‘Silver Thread and Golden Needles’ to promote the album, featuring a veritable who’s who of Music City and beyond as potential suitors turned away by the ladies.  You’ll see Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Chase, Ralph Emery, Bill Anderson, Jim Nabors, Little Jimmy Dickens, Marty Stuart, and Ronnie Milsap all make cameo appearances.  Chet Atkins is the only visitor finally allowed in. A rousing version of the country-gospel standard ‘Wings of a Dove’, originally a hit for Ferlin Husky in 1960, provides some of the disc’s best harmony moments.

All three contribute an original song here as well.  Loretta offers up the optimistic ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great’ while Tammy contributes ‘That’s The Way It Would Have Been’, a melancholy tale of chances lost and unrequited love.  Dolly’s song is the gospel-tinged ‘Let Her Fly’, a song mourning the death of her mother, but celebrating her reunion with God.  Such is the spirit of Dolly Parton, and all three of these exceptional women, and their three sole-compositions tell you volumes about them, just as the maker intended.  Closing with another country standard, an updated take on Tex Ritter’s ‘I Dream of a Hillbilly Heaven’, complete with recitations and plenty of shout-outs.

In true form, all three legendary ladies deliver the goods on Honky Tonk Angels, and offer their own unique input to the sound and the material.  This provides not only an album of traditional country music listening pleasure, but a lesson in how to do it from the architects of the modern country music sound.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Under The Influence’

Like most established artists, Alan Jackson recorded an album of songs in tribute to the artists that influenced him as a musician, singer, and songwriter.  Some artists do this after their commercial stars begin to fade and others release covers albums while they’re at their apex, like Alan did.  Aptly titled Under the Influence, the track list is taken directly from the jukeboxes of America.  Though he picked some obscure hits, these tunes are all honky tonk classics and the subjects of drinking, cheating, and hard times are aplenty throughout.  Meanwhile, Jackson and producer Keith Stegall stick close to the original arrangements on many of the songs, and even the album’s cover art is a throwback to yesteryear with its old-fashioned font and the listing of every track on the album’s cover.

Kicking things off is the album’s first single, ‘Pop a Top’.  The tune was written by Nat Stuckey and was originally a hit for Jim Ed Brown, whose version included a sound effect supplied by the opening of a soda can.  Jackson employed the same tactic here, but only on the song’s intro.  The get high when you get low tune peaked at #6 on the Country Singles chart in late 1999.

Gene Watson took the darkly brilliant ‘Farewell Party’ to the top 5 in 1979.  The slow country waltz features the narrator singing of his own funeral to the woman who he knows will ‘be glad when he’s gone’.  On the brighter side is ‘Kiss An Angel Good Morning’.  This is one that follows as close to the original as any on the album, and Alan’s warm vocal matches Charley Pride’s note for note.

One of my favorites on the set is the clever ‘Right In the Palm of Your Hand’.  This med-tempo number tells of a man and woman who are never satisfied in their relationship, with both always looking for greener pastures.  Neither realize that true love is ‘right in the palm of their hand’. Hank Williams Jr. penned the semi-autobiographical ‘The Blues Man’ in the late 70s .  With its smooth melody and almost-love song chorus, it’s mostly melodically driven, but the real punch from the song comes from the lyrics.  Many songs have been written about the ups and downs of touring life, but none as poignant or memorable as this song.  Released as a single, the darkly honest lyric might have been a bit much for country radio in early 2000.  The song failed on the charts, barely cracking the top 40 and now holds the distinction as Jackson’s lowest-charting single since his debut.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘My Kind of Country’

mkocReba McEntire’s rise to the top of the country music world was long and slow. Her first single for Mercury Records, 1976’s “I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand” peaked at #88 on the Billboard country singles chart, and the next few singles stalled in the 80s as well. She didn’t reach the Top 20 until 1979 and didn’t reach the Top 10 until the following year. She finally scored her first #1 in 1982 with “Can’t Even Get The Blues”, a song that had been intended for Jacky Ward, but which she fought hard to be allowed to record.

Dissatisfied with the material Mercury was providing for her, Reba left the label when her contract expired in 1983, and signed with MCA Records. Unfortunately, her tenure at MCA got off to a rocky start when she found herself in another situation where she had little say in the material she recorded. Her 1984 debut album for the label turned out to be another slick, overproduced, pop-oriented record, that was almost indistinguishable from the albums she’d released for Mercury. A frustrated McEntire made an appointment to see Jimmy Bowen, who had just taken over the helm as president of MCA’s Nashville division, unaware that he had already decided to drop her from the label. Bowen quickly rethought his decision after meeting Reba in person. He not only allowed her to make another album, he let her choose another producer and gave her complete control over song selection. The result was 1984’s My Kind of Country, a pivotal album for Reba McEntire and for country music. Produced by Harold Shedd, it helped kick off the New Traditionalist movement and began a new phase of Reba’s career. Gone were the lush string arrangements and electric guitar solos, and back in front and center were the fiddle and pedal steel.

Two singles were released from the album — “How Blue” and the Harlan Howard and Chick Raines-penned “Somebody Should Leave” — both, of which became #1 hits. Five of the remaining songs were covers of older songs, since it was difficult to find new traditional-sounding songs in early 1980s Nashville. Reba spent hours going through the back catalogs of the publishing companies, to find the kind of songs she wanted. She ended up choosing songs that had been made famous by the likes of Faron Young (“He’s Only Everything), Carl Smith (“Before I Met You”), Ray Price (“I Want To Hear It From You”) , Nat Stuckey (“Don’t You Believe Him”), and Connie Smith (“You’ve Got Me Right Where You Want Me”). She sings each of them with an enthusiasm and zeal that had been lacking on most of her previous releases. It was obvious that she was finally singing the kind of music she really loved, and having the time of her life in the process.

Read more of this post