My Kind of Country

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Classic Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian’ (1964)

bitter tearsRegardless of when he actually started wearing black, the legend of the ‘Man In Black’ starts here with this album.

By the time Bitter Tears was released, Cash had issued seven albums on Sun Records and eleven studio albums (including a Christmas album) on Columbia. This album, his eighteenth, although not the first album built around a theme, was the first album built around a cause.

Released in October 1964, the tracks on the album focus exclusively on the history and plight of Native Americans, with a strong focus the uncaring and unfair treatment of the original peoples of North America. Although the album only contains eight songs, the album itself ran the usual thirty minutes expected of an album during the 1960s.

It says much about the stature Cash already had as an artist that Columbia allowed him to release as noncommercial an album as Bitter Tears.

The album opens up with “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”, by Native American Peter La Farge. The song is about the loss of Seneca land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s.

As long as the moon shall rise as long as the rivers flow
As long as the sun will shine as long as the grass shall grow
The Senecas are an Indian tribe of the Iroquios nation
Down on the New York Pennsylvania Line you’ll find their reservation
After the US revolution corn planter was a chief
He told the tribe these men they could trust that was his true belief
He went down to Independence Hall and there was a treaty signed
That promised peace with the USA and Indian rights combined
George Washington gave his signature the Government gave its hand
They said that now and forever more that this was Indian land
As long as the moon shall rise…

On the Seneca reservation there is much sadness now
Washington’s treaty has been broken and there is no hope no how
Across the Allegheny River they’re throwing up a dam
It will flood the Indian country a proud day for Uncle Sam
It has broke the ancient treaty with a politician’s grin
It will drown the Indians graveyards corn planter can you swim
The earth is mother to the the Senecas they’re trampling sacred ground
Change the mint green earth to black mud flats as honor hobbles down
As long as the moon shall rise.

Johnny Cash penned “Apache Tears”, a bitter song about the mistreatment of the Apaches.

“Custer” by Peter La Farge is a Native American take on what happened at Little Big Horn. While conventional folklore often features General George Armstrong Custer as a heroic commander and victim, this song shows him as a vain and pompous individual as viewed from the Native American perspective:

Now I will tell you `busters`
I`m not a fan of Custer`s;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.
To some he was a hero,
But to me his score was zero;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Now George, he`d had victories,
But never massacres;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Old George had done his fightin`
Without too much excitin`
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

When the men were away at huntin`
Old Custer would come in pumpin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

He`d kill children, dogs and women,
With victories he was swimmin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

My favorite song on the album, “The Talking Leaves” was penned by Johnny Cash and tells the story of Sequoia (or Sequoyah), the Native American who developed written version of the Cherokee language, previously only an oral language.

Sequoia’s winters were sixteen
Silent tongue spirit clean
He walked at his father’s side
Across the smoking battle ground
Where red and white men lay all around
So many here had died
The wind had scattered around
Snow white leaves upon the ground
Not leaves like leaves from trees
Sequoia said, “What can this be?”
“What’s the strange thing here I see?”
“From where come leaves like these?”
Sequoia turned to his father’s eyes
And he said, “Father you’re wise
From where come such snow white leaves
With such strange marks upon these squares
Not even the wise owl could put them there
So strange these snow white leaves”
His father shielding his concern
Resenting the knowledge Sequoia yearned
Crumbled the snow white leaves
He said, “When I explain then it’s done
These are talking leaves, my son
The white men’s talking leaves”
The white man takes a berry of black and red
And an eagle’s feather from the eagle’s bed
And he makes bird track marks
And the marks on the leaves they say
Carry messages to his brother far away
And his brother knows what’s in his heart

The only single released from the album was another La Farge composition, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. The song tells the story of the life and death of Ira Hayes, a young US Marine of Pima descent, who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but died drunk and broke on the reservation a few short years later. The song made it to #3 on Billboard’s country singles chart

Ira Hayes…
Ira Hayes…
Call him drunken Ira Hayes,
He won’t answer anymore,
Not the whiskey drinking Indian,
Or the marine that went to war.

“Drums” is yet another La Farge composition, this song a bitter about the US government’s efforts to suppress Native American culture:

From the Indian reservation to the governmental school
Well, they’re goin’ to educate me to the white men’s Golden Rule
And I’m learning very quickly for I’ve learned to be ashamed
And I come when they call Billy though I’ve got an Indian name

And there are drums beyond the mountain
Indian drums that you can’t hear
There are drums beyond the mountain
And they’re getting mighty near

And when they think that they’d changed me
C ut my hair to meet their needs
Will they think, I’m white or Indian
Quarter blood or just half breed

Let me tell you, Mr. Teacher
When you say, you’ll make me right
In five hundred years of fighting
Not one Indian turned white and there are drums

“White Girl” is a La Farge song about the ill-fated love between a white girl and a Native American man. The girl declined to marry him because he was a Native American. The song also addresses the problems of alcohol among the Native Americans.

The album closes with “The Vanishing Race”, a song credited to Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton. Horton, Cash’s best friend and fishing buddy had died in a car crash four years before the release of this album. The song tells of a Native American viewing the future of his people

Oh, wagon trains rollin’ along
They fade from my visions and in time will be gone
I, I see an eagle in space
And my people will follow a vanishing race

Oh, now great spirits on high
Please spare them the sorrow you show to my eye
Now my blankets are roll
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
A vanishing Navajo

Bitter Tears reached #2 on Billboard’s country album charts and reached #47 on Bllboard’s all genres album chart. Although Columbia Records didn’t give either the album or single much promotional support, Cash promoted both ceaselessly, and would continue to support Native American causes throughout his life. Although Cash had no Native American blood in him (at one time he thought he might be part Cherokee), in 1966 Cash was adopted by the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan.

There are no up-tempo songs on this album and, other than “The Talking Leaves”, there are no really happy songs either. Despite that, this is my favorite Johnny Cash album, a thoroughly thoughtful and important endeavor on the part of Johnny Cash and his usual crew of the Carter Family and the Tennessee Three, augmented by ace musicians Norman Blake and Bob Johnson.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Rice, Rice, Hillman And Pedersen – ‘Out Of The Woodwork’

out of the woodworkIn 1996 Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen teamed up with brilliant bluegrass brothers Tony and Larry Rice to record a delightful acoustic record together, calling themselves an “anti-supergroup”. The four had first met as teenage musicians at a California bluegrass festival back in 1963. Their paths crossed a number of times over the next few decades, and in the mid 1990s came up with the idea of working together after the Rice Brothers played at the same festival as Herb’s then group, the Laurel Canyon Ramblers.

Vocals are split between Chris, Herb and Larry.

Larry Rice takes the lead vocal on the best track on the album, his own ‘Street Corner Stranger’. This haunting tale tells the somber story of an alcoholic who has lost everything good in his life thanks to his addiction, and is reduced to taking advice from a man who has fallen even further.

He also sings lead on Richard Thompson’s contemporary folk classic ‘Dimming Of The Day’, Norman Blake’s ‘Lord Won’t You Help Me’, and his own ‘Just Me And You’ – all fine performances and songs.

The wistful ‘Somewhere On The Road Tonight’, written and sung by Chris Hillman, has a protagonist dreaming of home. ‘So Begins The Task is a resigned take on learning to live without a former love. ‘Change Coming Down’, which he wrote with Steve Hill, picks up the tempo, but not the mood, with the protagonist bemoaning the departure of his loved one.

Soul classic ‘Do Right Woman’ is completely reinvented both musically and with the inversion of gender of the original, and works remarkably well, with Chris’s sympathetic lead vocal making it a very unexpected highlight. There are also revivals of the Desert Rose Band’s ‘Story Of Love’ and ‘Hard Times’, slowed down and more intimate and contemplative.

Herb sings ‘No One Else’, which he had also done on the Desert Rose Band’s True Love, and the philosophical Mac McAnally song ‘Only Passing Through’ with a coyly disguised ‘Mystery Singer’ (I think McAnally himself) on harmony.

Everything is tastefully arranged and beautifully played. In short, this is an excellent record which should appeal to all lovers of acoustic music.

Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen reunited for two further collaboration: a self-titled effort i n 1999 and Running Wild in 2001

Grade: A

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.