My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Norro Wilson

Legends (and others) lost in 2017

For one who grew up on the country music of the period (1960-1975) the last few years have been tough as we have seen many legendary figures come to the end of the road. 2017 was no exception. Let’s take a look back with a few words about the various stars that were dimmed in 2017. I should note that I’ve included a few non-country personal favorites.

Junior Barber
, a fantastic dobro player died at the age of 73. He worked with the Gibson Brothers bluegrass for seven years and his son Mike has played bass for the Gibson Brothers for the last twenty-five years.

Chuck Berr
y, 90, was a pioneer of rock ‘n roll and while many would not regard him as country, Buck Owens thought that Berry wrote great country songs, and the bluegrass duo of Jim & Jesse McReynolds recorded an entire album of his songs (Chuck wrote the liner notes) so who am I to disagree with them?

Sonny Burgess, 88, rockabilly pioneer and early Sun Records artist. There is a younger country artist with the name Sonny Burgess, whom I don’t believe is related. This guy was a great on-stage performer.

Glen Campbell
, 81, singer and guitarist who first came to my attention as a session musician for Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys (with whom he sometimes toured). Glen, who died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, could play anything with strings and could sing anything. My favorite tracks by him include “Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Wherefore and Why” and “I’m Gonna Love You”. Glen hosted a television show, appeared in movies and was simply one of the giants of the industry.

Antoine “Fats” Domino, 89, wasn’t a country singer but his music was infectious fun and enjoyed across the board. His hits were too numerous to list and many of them were covered by country singers.

Dave Evans, 65, had one of the best voices in bluegrass music being a great tenor singer, as well as being a good banjo player. It would be difficult to find another singer who sang with as much heart as Dave Evans.

Troy Gentry, 50, of Montgomery Gentry duo, died in a helicopter crash in Medford, New Jersey. I wasn’t a big Montgomery Gentry fan, but they had some good numbers and performed with enthusiasm.

Michael Johnson, 72, singer and guitarist whose country hits included “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder”. Michael was a terrific acoustic guitar player and had a major pop/adult contemporary hit with “Bluer Than Blue”.

Pete Kuykendall, 79, banjo champion and editor and publisher of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. I have subscribed to Bluegrass Unlimited for many years and think it is the finest magazine in the world of music.

Miggie Lewis
, 91 was a part of the first family of bluegrass gospel, the Lewis Family. The group disbanded years ago but youngest brother “Little” Roy Lewis a dynamic banjo player, comic and personality who still plays the bluegrass festival circuit.

Sam Lovullo, 88, was the producer and casting director of the long-running Hee Haw TV series (1969-1992). If he was only remembered for Hee Haw that would be sufficient legacy, but his son Torey Lovullo played major league baseball for eight years and then became a major league manager (he was the National League Manager of The Year for 2017). I am not ashamed to admit that I watched Hee Haw every chance I had, and that I know dozens of verses to “Pffffft, You Were Gone”.

Geoff Mack, 94, composer of the tongue-twisting and widely recorded “I’ve Been Everywhere,” in his native Australia. The lyrics familiar to American listeners were not the original lyrics, but a rewritten version to reflect North American place names.

Kevin Mahogany, 59 was a brilliant jazz baritone singer. He appeared and performed in Robert Altman’s 1996 movie, Kansas City.

Jo Walker Meador, 93, as executive director built the Country Music Association from a tiny, ragged startup into one of the nation’s most visible and successful trade organizations. Jo is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I can make a pretty good case for her being one of the two or three most important women in the history of country music.

D.L. Menard, 85, singer and songwriter widely known as the “Cajun Hank Williams” and most celebrated for his 1962 recording of “La Porte en Arriere,”. He died in his native Louisiana.

Tom Paley
died in England at the age of 89. Tom was a founding member (along with Mike Seeger and John Cohen) of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that did much to further the acceptance of bluegrass among folk audiences. I saw them once in 1962 and they were terrific.

Leon Rhodes, 85, was the lead guitarist for Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours and later played in the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw staff bands. He was also a successful session musician.

Kayton Roberts
, 83, steel guitarist in Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys band from 1968 to 1999. His son Louie Roberts also had a career in country music.

Curley Seckler who died in late December at the age of 98, was one of the last links to the first generation of bluegrass musicians, having performed with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Curley was old enough to remember Jimmie Rodgers and the Original Carter family being played on the radio. He also appeared on several segments of the Marty Stuart Show on RFD.

There was nothing country about Keely Smith, 89, but she was a fine singer with a terrific comedic touch. Her act with ex-husband Louis Prima played to packed houses in Las Vegas for the better part of a decade.

Tammy Sullivan died at the much too young age of 52, of cancer. Tammy was a marvelous singer best known for her work with the Sullivan Family, a bluegrass gospel band.

Wendy Thatcher, 69, was a formidable singer who is best remembered for her years with Eddie Adcock’s various bands.

Mel Tillis, 85, songwriter, singer, actor, comedian and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died in Ocala, Florida. Mel first came to prominence as a songwriter, with early efforts becoming hits for the likes of Webb Pierce and Ray Price during the early 1960s. It would be a decade before his career as a performer went into overdrive, but when it did he racked up many hits and won the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. I liked many of his songs but my favorite is “Would You Want The World To End (Not Loving Me)”. I saw Mel live on several occasions.

Don Warden, 87, was a former steel guitar player in Porter Wagoner’s band and subsequently Dolly Parton’s manager. You can sometimes catch Don in RFD’s reruns of the Porter Wagoner Show.

Don Williams, 78, was a singer and songwriter who regularly topped the country charts during the 1970s and ’80s. Starting out with the folk-country Pozo Seco Singers, Don’s solo career made him an international star and landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Norro Wilson, 79, producer, songwriter and former recording artist, whose hit compositions included George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl,” died in Nashville.

Bob Wooton
, 75, Johnny Cash’s lead guitar player from 1968 until Cash’s retirement in 1997, died in Gallatin, Tennessee. Bob was the replacement for Luther Perkins.

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘A Tribute To John D Loudermilk’

John D Loudermilk, a cousin of the legendary Louvin Brothers was a remarkable songwriter and artist in his own right, whose music crossed musical boundaries with eleements of country, rock and pop.
In March 2016 he was honoured by a star-studded tribute concert in Nashville, and selected performances from that occasion have now been released on CD/digital download and DVD. The concert is also set to be broadcast on PBS.

Opener ‘Everybody Knows’, performed by musician/singer/songwriter Harry Stinson, has a hypnotic 1950s pop-meets-Louvin Brothers feel. Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman delivers the teenage romance ‘Language Of Love’ in a sprightly 50s doowop pop style, also adopted by Lee Roy Parnell in a slightly bluesier fashion on ‘Mr Jones’. Another songwriter paying tribute is Bobby Braddock, who takes on ‘Break My Mind’ quite effectively, accompanied by his own piano. Norro Wilson is also pretty good on the novelty ‘The Great Snowman’.

Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver race through ‘Blue Train’, which works perfectly with a bluegrass arrangement. Southern rocker Jimmy Hall takes on ‘Bad News’ which again works well in this setting. Buddy Greene, mainly a Christian artist, sings the tongue in cheek story song ‘Big Daddy’s Alabama Bound’; his vocals are limited, but the arrangement is great. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers is passionate on the politically fuelled anthem to the Cherokee nation now restricted to the ‘Indian Reservation’.

Rodney Crowell also rocks it up on ‘Tobacco Road, possibly Loudermilk’s best known song; this is highly enjoyable and one of my favorite tracks. I was less impressed by his wife Claudia Church on the syncopated pop of ‘Sunglasses’.

John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band. Jorgenson (who helmed the whole affair) is known for his guitar playing rather than his singing, but his vocals are perfectly adequate on the rocker ‘Midnight Bus’. I very much enjoyed his Desert Rose Bandmate Herb Pederson on ‘It’s My Time’, very much in classic Desert Rose Band style. John Cowan soars on the life-affirming ‘I Wanna Live’.

Rosanne Cash is tender on the lovely ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, another highlight. Ricky Skaggs and the Whites team up on two songs. ‘Heaven Fell last Night’ is a lovely romantic ballad sung together by Ricky and wife Sharon, while Ricky takes the lead on the fun Stonewall Jackson hit ‘Waterloo’. I also enjoyed Becky Hobbs on the country hit ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’.

Emmylou Harris’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age, but she is well supported by the harmony vocals of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy on ‘Where Are They Gone’. 80s star Deborah Allen also sounds a little worse for wear on her song, the wistful ballad ‘Sad Movies’. Loudermilk’s son Mike doesn’t have much of a voice, but he does his best on a pleasant version of the catchy ‘Abilene’, and is backed by (his own?) delightful guitar work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae, an Americana/folk duo and rela-life married couple. Their version of the part spoken airline tragedy story song ‘Ebony Eyes’ is prettily harmonised although the individual voices are not that strong. Also new to me was Beth Hooker, who delivers a sultry blues version of Turn Me On’. Guests from further afield include Australian fingerpicking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel on an instrumental track.

This is a worthy tribute which reminds the listener of both the musical breadth and quality of Loudermilk’s oeuvre.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Black and White’

Released in June 1986, Black and White saw a strong directional shift in Janie’s music toward a more nuanced and adult approach to music. There is more blues influence evident than in her earlier recorded efforts. This was Janie’s eleventh album (her last name was spelled ‘Frickie’ on the album cover). Norro Wilson produced the album.

Although I regard this album as Janie’s masterpiece, some of the songs are marred by 1980s production. Also this album marked the end of her as a chart force. “Always Have, Always Will”went to #1, but the second single “When A Woman Cries” only reached #20, and no future Janie Fricke single would ever again reach the top twenty. Some would argue that the New Traditionalist movement shoved Janie aside, but I suspect that her age had as much to do with it as newer, younger faces arrived.

Side one of the original vinyl album opens up with “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore”. Written by Clyde Otis and Ulysses Burton, the song has a long history, having been a pop hit for Ben E. King in 1968, with numerous covers including Billy Joe Royal’s #2 country hit in 1990. Janie does a nice job with the song.

Let’s not fight it anymore
Unpack your bags and close the door
Girl, I’ll never leave you
Though you lied right from the start
I can’t convince my foolish heart
Not to believe you

You’ve got two good men strung out
And there’s not the slightest doubt
That other men have loved you before
But you drew your face away
I dream of Heaven and I live in Hell
Till I can’t take it anymore

“He’s Breathing Down My Neck” is a mid-tempo ballad with a very jazzy feel to it. I think this is the weakest song on the album and it’s not at all bad.

Kent Robbins wrote “Take Me Like A Vacation”, an interesting song taken at mid-tempo. The song was later covered by Lynn Anderson. “Nothing Left To Say” is a slow ballad about the end of a relationship. The song is really well sung by Janie, a very nice album track. “Coming Apart At The Seams” is the story of a breakup that the narrator wants no part of, and cannot accept.

Thus ends side one of the original vinyl album. Other than the first track, none of the songs themselves are anything special but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Side two opens with the best song Janie Fricke ever recorded, the bluesy “Always Have, Always Will”. The song reached #1. There is some lovely steel guitar on the track by former Buckaroo Tom Brumley.

It seems funny I remember your number
After all this time
And I know that it’s late
And I hope that I’m not out o’ line
But for some crazy reason
I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout you all day
And every three hours now
I’ve been thinkin’ of somethin’ to say

Ilove you like a fool
Always have, always will
But you know that it’s just my point of view
But I love you still
Always have, always will
Always have, always will love you

“Don’t Put It Past My Heart” is a mid-tempo song about a woman’s warning to her lover telling him to not take her for granted. This would have made a good single.

“When A Woman Cries” was released as a single, topping out at #20. Written by Buck Moore and Mentor Williams, I would have expected the song to be a bigger hit.

The album closes out with a pair of slow ballads. “He’s Making A Long Story Short” and “I’d Take You Back Again”, one of the few songs penned by Ms. Fricke.

The key to this album is that the songs are all situated in such a way as to let Janie show off her vocal prowess without overstraining her voice. Fricke is in good voice throughout, and while parts of the production sound a bit dated, at no point are the arrangements cluttered and obtrusive. Unlike her prior albums, which were simply collections of songs, this album sets a mood and does it well.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Next To You’

next-to-youThe singles from Higher Ground were to prove to be Tammy’s final top 40 country hits as radio moved on to a new generation of singers. She turned to veteran Norro Wilson to produce her next album, 1989’s Next To You.

There were two singles from the album. The title track peaked just outside the top 50; it is a subdued, rather downbeat ballad about finding love again, with some rather pretty fiddle. The nostalgic midtempo ‘Thank The Cowboy For The Ride’ (about childhood playmates turning to lifelong love) did even less well, and may be a little too sweet for some despite a little humor.

‘The Note’ is a passionate ballad about heartbreak previously recorded by Gene Watson (and later covered by Daryle Singletary). It is a great song, but the production on Tammy’s version somewhat cloaks it with excessive backing vocals. ‘You Left Memories Layin’ (All Over The Place)’ is in much the same style as the wife left behind.

Even better known was ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, a Dallas Frazier/Doodle Owens song which was one of Charley Pride’s biggest hits. Tammy’s version is delightful, and the song itself is so perfectly constructed it cannot fail.

‘If You Let Him Drive You Crazy (He Will)’is an excellent song written by Curly Putnam, Don Cook, and Max D Barnes. The jaundiced lyric about the failings of men, as seen through the eyes of a mother giving advice to her daughter just embarking on life, tells volumes about her own married life:

The man always gets what he’s after
Then leaves you just over the hill
You oughta understand why it’s over
If you let him drive you crazy, he will

There isn’t a real resolution, just the suggestion that the daughter’s trust in her own boyfriend might be plagued by doubt. Rather more positively, ‘We Called it Everything But Quits’ is a good-humored reflection on surviving hard times and an enduring marriage.

‘I Almost Forgot’, written by Karen Staley, is a very nice song about an encounter with an ex briniging up painful memories. ‘Liar’s Roses’ is a delicate ballad written by Bill and Sharon Rice about a woman who is not fooled for an instant by her cheating husband:

The doorbell rings
It’s flowers for me
Roses again
It’s the third time this week
What kind of fool
Must he picture me to be
To be blinded by a dozen liar’s roses?

Guilt-stained words on beautiful cards
But not a single one that comes from the heart
He’s seein’ her again
‘Cause that’s when he starts
Sendin’ me these lovely liar’s roses

Oh, I’m sleepin’ in a bed of liar’s roses
While he dreams of somebody else
He lies to me and thinks that I don’t know it

‘When A Girl Becomes A Wife’ written by Tammy and husband George Richey is deliberately old fashioned in its lyric, but it feels odd even in the 1989 context, let alone 2016.

Tammy’s voice was showing signs of strain, but this is generally a solid album with the odd misstep.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Tammy’s Touch’

tammys-touchThe second of three albums Tammy released in 1970, Tammy’s Touch had two hit singles. The first, ‘I’ll See Him Through’, written by producer Billy Sherrill and Norro Wilson, which peaked at #2, is a beautifully understated subdued ballad about a wife wondering if her marriage which may be on the rocks, but determined to honor the past support he has given her. The arrangement has dated a bit, but Tammy’s vocal is superb.

‘He Loves Me All The Way’ (written by the same pair together with Carmol Taylor) went all the way itself to #1. It is a bouncy tune about a jealous woman doubting her man’s fidelity, apparently unfairly. On the same theme, but with a more downbeat note, ‘Cold Lonely Feeling’, written by Jerry Chesnut, is a very good song about a married woman plagued by doubt.

Also excellent is Curly Putnam’s ‘The Divorce Sale’, using a separating couple’s selloff of unwanted joint possessions to highlight the sadness of the split. It could have been a big hit if released as a single for Tammy. The subdued ‘Our Last Night Together’ is from the point of view of the ‘other woman’ as her affair with a married man comes to an end.

Sherrill’s ‘Too Far Gone’ (best known from Emmylou Harris’s version a few years later) is a beautiful song, and Tammy’s version is lovely. Sherrill wrote ‘A Lighter Shade Of Blue’ (another good song) with Glenn Sutton. A troubled wife-cum-doormat in an on-off relationship is beginning to feel the pain less by repetition, and to love him a little less each time. Sutton and Tammy’s future husband George Richey wrote ‘Love Me, Love Me’, quite a nice romantic ballad. Jerry Crutchfield’s ‘You Make My Skies Turn Blue’ is another pretty love song.

The sultry ‘He Thinks I Love Him’, written by Carmol Taylor, has a potentially intriguing lyric about a controlling husband which is defused by revealing that she does indeed love the man. ‘Run, Woman, Run’ offers advice to a flighty young newlywed thinking of leaving. The heavily orchestrated ‘Daddy Doll’ will be far too saccharine for most modern listeners, but in its own way points out the sadness of divorce for the children involved.

‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ is a cover of a 1959 R&B hit for Brook Benton, but Tammy probably recorded it as it was a contemporary country hit for Sonny James; it may be most familiar to country fans from Randy Travis’s 1989 version. Tammy’s take is not particularly distinctive. Finally, ‘Lonely Days (And Nights More Lonely)’ is a pretty good song about separation from a loved one.

This is a very strong album, albeit firmly one of its time. It should appeal to all Tammy Wynette fans.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House’

take-me-to-your-worldReleased in January 1968, Take Me To Your World/ I Don’t Wanna Play House, was Tammy’s second solo album and represented another step forward in Tammy Wynette’s career, rising to #3 on the Country Albums chart. Not only that, but the two singles released from the album both rose to #1 giving Tammy her first two solo #1 records and her third overall #1 (her duet of “My Elusive Dreams” with David Houston reached #1 in 1967).

For me, the apogee of female country singers was reached in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While female singers may have achieved better chart penetration later, qualitative the major label crop of female singers was abundant and excellent with the likes of Connie Smith, Wilma Burgess, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepard, Dottie West, Skeeter Davis, Lynn Anderson, Liz Anderson, Norma Jean, Rose Maddox, Jeanie Seely, Jeannie C Riley, Barbara Mandrell and Wanda Jackson being among the competition. There also were a host of second-tier artists on the major labels and many female artists on minor and independent labels. Within a few years the likes of Tanya Tucker and Barbara Fairchild would appear on the scene. The ghost of Patsy Cline was also on the scene.

While Tammy Wynette did not have the sheer vocal power of a Jean Shepard or Loretta Lynn, she did have the advantage of a record producer who was perfectly able to overcome Tammy’s vocal limitations and devise accompaniments to perfectly frame the essential teardrop in Tammy’s voice, and to write (when necessary) to showcase the voice and the production.

(As an aside, when I refer to the term “Nashville Sound”, I am referring to recordings where steel guitars and fiddles are accompanied (or sometimes replaced) by symphonic arrangements and choral accompaniments. The chief architects of this style were Chet Atkins at RCA, Owen Bradley at Decca, and Billy Sherrill at Epic. In Sherrill’s hands the arrangements were sometimes referred to as ‘country cocktails’. The style was very effective in covering up a singer’s lack of range, particularly in the higher registers.)

The album opens with “I Don’t Wanna Play House” a Billy Sherrill-Glen Sutton composition that won the 1968 Grammy for Best Female Country Performance. In the song, the narrator, a woman whose husband has left her, hears her daughter tell a neighbor boy that she doesn’t want to play house and the reason why she doesn’t want to play. This is a very compelling song:

Today I sat alone at the window
And I watched our little girl outside at play
With the little boy next door like so many times before
But something didn’t seem quite right today

So I went outside to see what they were doing
And then the teardrops made my eyes grow dim
‘Cause I heard him name a game and I hung my head in shame
When I heard our little girl say to him.

I don’t want to play house; I know it can’t be fun
I’ve watched mommy and daddy
And if that’s the way it’s done
I don’t want to play house; It makes my mommy cry
‘Cause when she played house
My daddy said good-bye.

Next up is “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, a minor hit for Norma Jean in 1967. Tammy does as nice job with the song.

“Broadminded” comes from the pen of Leona Williams and Jimmy Payne. At some point Leona would become one of Merle Haggard’s wives and would have some success on the country charts, although never as much as her talent would have warranted. The Leona Williams version of the songs is far superior to Tammy’s rendition, but if you’ve not heard Leona’s version you will likely like Tammy’s recording. At this point in her career Tammy really hadn’t become quite assertive enough to give this sassy up-tempo song the proper reading.

Broadminded, narrow minded man
Every night I catch you sleepin’ with a smile on your face
And a-callin’ names that I don’t even know
If it ain’t Carmel, Pat and Gracie
Aand drinkin’ down at Stacey’s
It’s making plans to see a girly show

Broadminded, I just don’t understand
A broadminded, narrow minded man

“Cry” was a big 1950s hit for male pop singer Johnnie Ray. Tammy gives it a straight ahead reading, but the song works better in the hands of someone with a bigger voice – both Lynn Anderson (#3 in 1972) and Crystal Gayle (#1 in 1986) would have big hits with the song in the upcoming years.

“The Phone Call”, written by Norris “Norro” Wilson, is just album filler, a phone call between a daughter and her mother, telling her mother her tale of woe about a man who mistreated her.

“Take Me To Your World”, a Glen Sutton-Billy Sherrill collaboration, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment by Sherrill. The song is an outstanding effort and showcases Tammy vocals perfectly.

If you can find it in your heart to just forgive
I’ll come back and live the way you’ve wanted me to live
All I want is just to be your girl
Please come and get me, and take me to your world

Take me to your world, away from bar rooms filled with smoke
Where I won’t have to serve a drink, or hear a dirty joke
All I want is just to be your girl

“(Or) Is It Love” was written by Buddy Ray. It too, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment, turning a piece of filler into a worthwhile effort. Harry Mills’ “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego” is a song about a woman essentially talking her man off the ledge and into returning home. The production on this song is very country, including use of a dobro.

With one elbow on the bar you’re drinking double
Tryin’ hard to drown up my memories
And you’re tellin’ all your buddies all your troubles
Layin’ the blame smack upon me.

If you set that bottle down and while I listen
You lose your pain inside that hurts you so
Neither one of us is all to blame baby
It’s your foggy woggy, wishy washy, fuzzy wuzzy ego.

My vinyl album contains “It’s My Way” a song credited to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. It is a good song, but it does not appear on my digital version of the album.

Glen Sutton’s “Good” would have made a good single, a tale of a woman torn between good and bad, who simply cannot keep herself in line. The production is subdued Nashville Sound.

Now I’m back here in a barroom,
A waitress again.
The good world I’ve lived in,
Just came to an end.

For temptation comes easy
To a woman like me.
And regardless of my chances,
I know that I’ll never be.

Good like I used to be;
I guess it’s just not in me.
With all my heart how I wish I proved
I’ve been good like he wanted me.

“Ode To Billy Joe” is a cover of the Bobbie Gentry hit from a few years earlier. Tammy gives the song a satisfactory rendition, but she does not have the soulful Gothic feel of Gentry’s original.

“Soaking Wet” is the bonus track on my digital copy of the album, a straight ahead country treatment devoid of Nashville Sound trappings. I have no other information concerning this song.

At this point in Tammy’s career she and Billy Sherrill were still looking for that magic formula that would turn Tammy into a full-fledged star. Consequently this album features songs with the full Nashville Sound treatment, some songs with scaled back Nashville Sound treatments and a few straight ahead country arrangements.

While Tammy and Billy were still experimenting here, the very next album would answer all the questions and set the trajectory for subsequent albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ (1974)

r-6847990-1427926933-1911-jpeg1974’s Asleep at the Wheel was the band’s second release and the first for Epic Records. It was also the first of a pair of eponymous albums; another album titled Asleep at the Wheel would be released about a decade later by MCA.

Produced by Norro Wilson, the album was almost completely out of step with mainstream country, and as such it did not sell particularly well. It did, however, produce the band’s first chart single, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, which peaked at #69. But because it did not follow the the commercial trends of the day, it does not sound as dated as many of the albums released in that era. In fact, it is every bit as enjoyable today as it was over 40 year ago.

It is an eclectic collection of Western swing, straight country and 1940s-style jump blues. Two singles were released: “Don’t Ask Me Why (I’m Going to Texas)” written by Ray Benson, Leroy Preston and Kevin Farrell, and the aforementioned “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” which had been a big R&B hit in 1946 for Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five. Despite the inclusion of some fiddle, steel and honky-tonk piano, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” doesn’t sound very country at all but it is very well done. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is more Bob Wills-style Western swing and is also quite well done.

“You and Me Instead”, another Kevin Farrell composition, is a more contemporary number with a 70s-style string section. It’s a different style than we typically expect from Asleep at the Wheel and I wonder why no one though to release this one as a single. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorites on the album but it seems like it would have had some mainstream appeal in 1974.

“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a Count Basie tune that still sounds like mainstream 1940s big band music, despite some excellent fiddle from the great Johnny Gimble, who played on seven of the album’s eleven tracks, including “Don’t Ask Me Why”.

If pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose “Last Letter”, which is sung beautifully by band member Chris O’Connell, who at times sounds a bit like Connie Smith. The song itself was written by Rex Griffin, who had a hit with it in 1937. It is a story told by a jilted spouse as she writes a suicide note to the spouse who abandoned her. Griffin wrote the song based on his own real-life experience. O’Connell takes the spotlight again on one other track, “Our Names Aren’t Mentioned (Together Anymore)”, which is performed as a duet with its writer Leroy Preston. Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly” is another highlight.

Leroy Preston is not as good a vocalist as Ray Benson, but he sings lead adequately on four tracks, the best of which is “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”.

Asleep at the Wheel is an outstanding album from start to finish: the material is impeccable, and the musicians are excellent. The instrumental solos are as enjoyable as the vocals. I couldn’t find a single weak moment to criticize. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Western swing — or swing music in general.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘I Witness Life’

i witness life - 100 children1970 would prove to a year of steady development for Tom T Hall as two he would release two albums, I Witness Life and One Hundred Children, that would both crack Billboard’s top forty country album chart. The albums in turn would provide him with four chart singles. I mention the two albums together because the German reissue label Bear Family coupled them on a fine CD which, aside from engaging in a vinyl hunt, is the only format in which you will find either album. This article is about I Witness Life.

The instrumentation for the album finds the Mercury ‘A’ Team at work of Jerry Kennedy on guitar and dobro, Harold Bradley on guitar, Bob Moore on bass, Buddy Harman on drums and Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins on piano with other artists such as Randy Scruggs (banjo), Pete Drake (steel guitar) and Charlie McCoy (harmonica) appearing on some tracks. All but one of the tracks were recorded in February or March of 1970.

One of the most unusual songs ever to grace the country airwaves opened the album as “Salute To A Switchblade Knife” gave Tom T his fifth top ten single, reaching #8. The song is based on Hall’s U.S. Army service in West Germany. As he put it ‘not necessarily an incident one would want to write Mother about ..’

Me and Yates an army buddy of mine
Were doin’ three years in Germany at the time
We came upon these Frauleins in the bar
Yates said, “Darf ich Sie begleiten?”, they said “Ja”
(spoken) And ‘Darf ich Sie begleiten means?’, ‘Can we sit with you all?’
Oh we must have drunk ten quarts of German beer
My conscience and my sinuses were clear
I asked that Fraulein if she was a spy
She said, “Nein but do bis ain bissel high”
(spoken) A condition not uncommon to the American soldier
***
And the army has a new policy if you can’t move it, paint it
If it has a switchblade knife, salute it
(spoken) Not necessarily an incident one would want to write mother
about, Germany being full of good soldiers …

I guess everyone has to start somewhere and for Tom T Hall, after his stint in the army ended in 1961, he headed to the Connorsville, Indiana home of an army buddy and started his career in earnest. In “Thank You, Connorsville, Indiana” Hall recalls his early days of playing all night for near peanuts

Well, after seven hours of ‘Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Wildwood Flower’
I had my seven dollars, eighty cents
I gave it to a waitress who was going to have a baby;
She said she needed just that much to help her pay her rent

“Do It To Someone You Love” was a nice song that became a top twenty hit for Norro Wilson, a record producer for various labels and a fine songwriter in his own right with the Charlie Rich classic “A Very Special Love Song” among his credits.

The words I love you come easy to the lips of a liar or a fool
If love talking is what you’re thinking of then do it to someone you love
Do it to someone you love

Some little things to let them know they’re all you’re thinking of
This day and time a little thing you do could mean so much
So do it to someone you love

“The Ballad of Bill Crump” is based on a true story, according to Hall. Whether or not there is any truth to the story, it makes for a fine song. Tom T plays some harmonica on this track joined by Charlie McCoy (overdubbed at a later date):

Now I hear a lot of tall stories since my business is writin’ songs
And every now and then if you listen real close
A good true one comes along
And this is the story of old Bill Crump from the North Carolina Hills
Nat Winston of Nashville knew this man real well

He built the church and he built the pews
He built the cradles and the furniture for the schools
Folks in Avery County say that he was better than good
Probably one of the reasons the Lord made wood

Now men have faults and Bill’s fault was
He loved to sip that corn
He lived ninety some years that way
Don’t guess it was hurtin’ him none

The end of the song finds Crump building his own casket !

If Tom’s music often has the feel of bluegrass, “Chattanooga Dog” makes no bones about it with Randy Scruggs (Earl’s son) prominently featured on banjo. Pete Drake supplies some delicate steel guitar shadings that do not detract from the bluegrass feel.

There’s a fairground down in Chattanooga
Where a kiddy train runs up and down the track
There’s an old black hound that always hangs around
And he chases that train down and back
And I’ve been chasing you like that Chattanooga dog
Even though I know you don’t care
I’ve been chasing you like that Chattanooga dog
And it ain’t gonna get me anywhere

The War in Vietnam (aka LBJ’s War) was one of the great tragedies in American history. Tom T. Hall describes the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C., as ‘an ongoing eternal funeral’. “Girls In Saigon City” reflects the situation that many a soldier found himself in during the Vietnam War. Apparently the idea came from one of Tom’s friends.

There’s a place called Da Nang Village cross the ocean far away
In deep concern for one young woman that’s where I abide today
Today, I got a dear-John-letter from that young woman in the USA

When I was called I knew I’d lose her it don’t matter anyway
There are girls in Saigon City waiting there with open arms
On my leave I may go see them in this other world called Vietnam

“Hang Them All” is a very up-tempo song, with a comic sense that tends to obscure the serious message. Hall describes it as the first protest song he ever wrote.

If they hang ’em all they get the guilty
If they hang ’em all they cannot miss
If they hang ’em all they get the guilty
Been a lot of problem solved like this
Indeed

“Coming To The Party” is the story of a man who is trying to get over an old love by heading to a party to try to find a new love. It has somewhat of the quality of the George Jones hit “She Thinks I Still Care”.

Coming to the party tonight
And I’ll find someone new to hold me tight
She thinks I’m home crying won’t she be surprised
Cause I’m coming to the party tonight

“America The Ugly” is probably the most thought provoking song on the album. It’s not really a protest song, although some at the time thought of it that way. As Tom T Hall explains in the liner notes for the Bear CD: ‘This song is not simply about injustice in America, but also points out that those internal injustices hurt us abroad’.

There was a man, came to see the USA from a foreign land
To photograph the progress of dear old Uncle Sam
He got off the boat in New York, went down to the Bowery
I know what the man went to photograph and to see

There were hopeless, hungry living dead
Winos who sell their souls for a bottle of a cheapest red
That’s the picture that he wanted
And that’s what he got they say, America the ugly today

***

There were some folks, had plenty and some had none at all
The enemy knows when a heart gets hard, the country is bound to fall
If we get heads and hearts together we won’t have to hear them say
“America the ugly today, America the ugly today”

The album closes with “That’ll Be All Right With Me”, a nice reflective song which apparently came from an earlier recording session than the rest of the tracks on this album. Regardless, it’s a nice song and a fitting end to the album.

It’s not my sun, man, and if it’s not shinin’
When I wake up tomorrow morning, hmm, that’ll be all right with me
They’re not my birds, man, and if they’re not singin’
When I wake up tomorrow morning, hmm, that’ll be all right with me

One Hundred Children was not one of the albums we planned on presenting this month, but since it is paired with I Witness Life on the Bear Family CD, I though I’d say a few words about the album. Even though the album was recorded only seven months later in August and September 1970, you can hear an evolution in the arrangements of producer Jerry Kennedy. While the basic ‘talking blues man’ accompaniment is largely maintained, there are tracks where string overdubs are used to augment the basic accompaniment – yes, the dreaded ‘Nashville Sound’. Tom T Hall’s voice is distinctive enough that the strings don’t drown him out or change the fundamental qualities that made him such a distinctive artist. Temperate use of such embellishments would make Hall more accessible to a wider audience. Although neither of these two albums broke the top thirty, for the next five or so years, Hall’s albums would reach the top ten.

The singles from 100 Children were the title song, which reached #14 and “Ode To A Half A Pound of Ground Round” which reached #21.

The title track is one of those fairly meaningless family of man songs, akin to the later “We Are The World”. The synthesis of Randy Scruggs on banjo with a full string arrangement make this track sound better than the song actually is, but the rest of the album is full of much better songs.

The three standouts on the album are “I Can’t Dance” which is the story of my life (“I can’t dance, I never could, I guess my feet don’t match”), “Pinto The Wonder Horse Is Dead” (a nostalgic look at childhood) and “Ode To A Half A Pound of Ground Round”.

I think many of us have experienced circumstances similar to the narrator in “Ode To A Half A Pound of Ground Round”.

(spoken) This song is about the time I nearly starved to death in Roanoke Virginia

I woke up Wednesday morning in my little motel bed
Knowing I would die the minute that I moved my head
I felt around to make sure I was in my bed alone
I meet some friendly people when I’m stoned

My payday was on Friday I had two more days to go
Even in my agony I knew that I was broke
Lemme pay the check I said and keep the change my friend
She wiggled out of sight with my last ten

At noon I realized there wasn’t any way to eat
For lunch I just went out and shuffled up and down the street
At four o’clock I had a funny feeling in my chest
How long’s it take to starve a man to death

I found some pennies in a jar and bought a candy bar
Divided it in pieces and I ate one every hour
I just rolled into town and didn’t know a single soul
There wasn’t any way to make a loan

The next album would be In Search of A Song, Tom T’s first top ten album and featuring (arguably) Hall’s most famous solo hit, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died”.

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Honky Tonk Boots’

Released in June 2006, Honky Tonk Boots reunited Sammy Kershaw with Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, the duo who had produced his early albums for Mercury. But instead of being a back to basics project, the album unfortunately stands as an example of how artists past their commercial peak — particularly those who tend not to write their own material — have difficulty accessing quality songs. Honky Tonk Boots has its good moments but it relies too heavily on novelty songs and second-rate material.

Things get off to a rocky start with the opening track and lead single “Tennessee Girl”, in which Sammy is at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get vanity license plates in order to impress his latest love interest. It’s a fluffy number with repetitious lyrics, clearly not meant to be taken too seriously. It would probably be nitpicking to point out that “Tennessee Girl” is too long to fit on a license plate. The Bob DiPiero and Craig Wiseman tune was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #43.

I like the title track a little better (but just a little). It’s another beat-driven boot-scootin’ boogie style song with lightweight lyrics and sounds like a throwback to the line-dancing craze of the 90s. Things pick up considerably with the third track “One Step At A Time”, which while not quite in the same league as “Yard Sale”, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” or “Politics, Religion and Her”, is the best song on the album.

Among the better tracks on the album are two faithful-to-the-original cover songs, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” and “The Battle”. The former had been a #1 hit for Mel McDaniel in 1985. Sammy’s version was released as a single but did not chart. The latter had been an under-performing single for George Jones in 1976, peaking at #16. Jones is the singer to which Kershaw is most frequently compared and the influence is apparent here, but good though Sammy’s performance is, even he can’t out-possum the Possum.

The remainder of the album is dominated by either filler or silly novelty tunes such as “Mama’s Got a Tattoo”, which attempts to use humor to stir up feelings of patriotism, and “Cantaloupes on Mars”, which is a series of “when hell freezes over” type cliches about the end of a relationship.

His only release for the independent Category 5 label, Honky Tonk Boots is decidedly a mixed bag. It does have its moments but is badly marred by inferior material. It’s not a terrible album, but it is definitely not essential listening. Inexpensive copies are easy to find should you decide to seek it out.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Politics, Religion, and Her’

When Sammy Kershaw convened in the studio to follow up Feelin’ Good Train he stuck with his trusty production team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. In addition to his secular work, they’d teamed up for a holiday release, Christmas Time’s A-Comin’ (the title track being my favorite version of that fabulous song) in the winter of 1994, and Greatest Hits, Chapter 1 in 1995.  As a result, when Politics, Religion and Her was released in May 1996, it stuck true to the formula Kershaw had honed since his debut five years earlier.

Lead single “Meant To Be,” an uptempo ode to finding love in unexpected places, was the most successful at radio peaking at #5. He followed with the novelty song “Vidalia” which reached a #10 peak that summer. Both are very good although “Vidalia,” a song I remember distinctly from watching the video on CMT as a kid, isn’t the greatest lyric in Kershaw’s catalog.

Radio didn’t respond as kindly to the album’s title track and it only managed to squeak into the top the top 30. Thanks to a killer lyric by Bryon Hill and Tony Martin plus underpinnings of mournful steel, it’s my favorite of the four singles. Deflecting pain has rarely sounded so good as it does here:

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Feelin’ Good Train’

Sammy’s third album for Mercury/Polygram was released in 1994, and was produced as before by the team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson.  The first single, ‘National Working Woman’s Holiday  proved to be Sammy’s biggest hit since She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful, just missing the top spot with a #2 peak.  It was co-written from the usually estimable Roger Murrah, but while it is catchy, this well-meaning tribute to a man’s hard working wife comes across as pandering.

A cover of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ 1970s hit ‘Third Rate Romance’, which is much better, also reached #2.  The closely observed lyric is on the surface unjudgmental, but sharply honest and precise about the sleazy nature of the situation.  The original singer and the song’s writer, Russell Smith, contributes backing vocals.

Mac McAnally’s gently atmospheric but slightly overproduced ‘Southbound’) with McAnally on backing vocals) was perhaps too subtle for country radio, and showed the first signs of a commercial slowdown for the artist, not getting far into the top 30.  ‘If You’re Gonna Walk, I’m Gonna Crawl’ did a little better, and was a top 20 hit.  It’s actually my favourite of the album’s singles, an entertaining upbeat number about a honky tonker seeing the error of his ways only when his wife is set to walk away.  It was written by co-producer Cannon with Larry Bastian.

There is a rare writing credit for Sammy on the joyous Cajun rocker ‘Better Call A Preacher’, which features Jo-El Sonnier’s accordion. I’m surprised this irresistible track wasn’t a single.  Another joy is ‘Never Bit A Bullet Like This’, a playfully performed duet with George Jones.  Also quite entertaining is ‘Paradise From Nine To One’, a cheerful if rather generic up-tempo number about a couple painting the town red.  The title track, however, is just pointless

Breakup song ‘If You Ever Come This Way Again’ is a Dean Dillon co-write (with Donny Kees).  The phrasing and melody bear all the hallmarks of a Dillon composition, while the production utilizes adelicate string arrangement to add sweetness to the melancholy mood. This is an excellent, subtle song about the complicated emotions felt by the protagonist facing separation from someone for whom we feel he has stronger feelings than he actually admits.

Also excellent is the delicately mournful ballad ‘The Heart That Time Forgot’, written by Tony Martin and Sterling Whipple, about failing to get past the memory of a lost love.  The soulful ‘Too Far Gone To Leave’ is an emotional ballad which isn’t bad, but has an obtrusive string arrangement which drowns the vocal at times.

It did not sell quite as well as its predecessors, but was certified gold.  While not Sammy Kershaw’s best work, it is a pretty solid effort, and used copies are available so cheaply it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Haunted Heart’

Sammy Kershaw’s sophomore effort reunited him with producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, whose collaboration had helped Don’t Go Near The Water achieve platinum-level sales. 1993’s Haunted Heart continues in a similar vein. It too achieved platinum status, but it also improved upon its predecessor’s inconsistent success with country radio; all of Haunted Heart’s four singles landed in the Top 10, unlike Sammy’s previous effort which had produced only two Top 10 hits.

Straight out of the box, the catchy lead single “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful”, written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison, rose all the way to #1, becoming the first and only chart-topper of Kershaw’s career. The upbeat title track was the album’s worst performing single, peaking at #9, while the similar sounding “Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer” performed slightly better, reaching #7. The latter song, written by Dennis Linde, is marred by somewhat cliched and silly lyrics, but its catchy beat makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The fourth and final single, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” is the best of the group and ranks right up there with “Yard Sale” as one of Kershaw’s best singles.

Aside from the hit singles, Haunted Heart is noteworthy for some of its supporting personnel. The legendary Weldon Myrick, famous for his work with Connie Smith, plays steel guitar on that album, and one of the background vocalists is Sammy’s labelmate, the then largely unknown Shania Twain. She can be heard most prominently on the excellent Dean Dillon and Danny Kees composition “What Might Have Been”. It’s too bad that Shania’s own discography doesn’t contain material like this. Another standout track is the beautiful ballad “Still Lovin’ You”, which despite its inclusion on Sammy’s 1995 The Hits: Chapter 1 compilation, was never released as a single. The steel guitar track and Melonie Cannon’s harmony vocals are beautiful.

However, not all of the album’s material is stellar; there are two duds in particular — the novelty tune “Neon Leon” which really wears thin with repeated listenings, and “You’ve Got A Lock On My Heart”, which was written by producer Buddy Cannon with Larry Bastian. Heavy on electric guitar, it’s the least traditional song on the album. Another artist might have made it work, but it’s a stretch for Sammy and it really doesn’t fit well with the rest of the album. All is forgiven however, with the closing track, a contemporary take on the Bill Monroe classic “Cry, Cry Darlin'”. Unlike the original, this version does not have a bluegrass arrangement; the electric guitar is a bit intrusive at times, but the pedal steel and harmony vocals are superb.

Casual Sammy Kershaw fans may be content to own just his hits compilations, but there are enough gems among this collection’s album cuts to make it worth purchasing. It can be easily obtained at bargain prices.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’

1991 was the height of the neotraditional movement, and the period saw a host of exciting new artists rooted in traditional country music breaking through. It was the ideal time for Sammy Kershaw, with his astonishingly George Jones soundalike voice, to make his debut. Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson produced his first album for Mercury, and did a fine job showcasing the artist’s voice.

His debut single ‘Cadillac Style’ was an immediate success, reaching #3. It sunnily celebrates the power of true love to overcome the limitations of poverty. The sultry title track (penned by Chapin Hartford and Jim Foster) relates the passions of first love somewhere in the South. Imbued with Southern atmosphere, the record peaked just outside the top 10.

The record’s finest song, ‘Yard Sale’ was Sammy’s third straight top 20 hit, and his finest single to date. Written by Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian, it depicts in precise detail the sad aftermath of a failed marriage, with the couple’s goods being sold off cheap to all comers, leading to Sammy’s sardonic comment,

Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?

This excellent song would have been perfect for George Jones himself at his peak. While Kershaw isn’t quite the superlative interpreter Jones is, he still delivers the song very well.

The final single, ‘Anywhere But Here’, was Sammy’s second top 10. A vibrant up-tempo treatment belies the protagonist’s broken heart and desire just to get away from the scene of his broken heart.

Bob McDill’s regretful ‘Real Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ has a lovely fiddle/steel laden arrangement. The protagonist finds his sophisticated modern worldview collapses when his heart gets broken, and he reverts to an older style of dealing with heartbreak:

I play Hank Williams on the jukebox
Order up old whiskey at the bar
And through my tears I light another Lucky
I’ve got a real old fashioned broken heart

This is another gem, as is ‘Kickin’ In’, a heartbreak ballad written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, with a pretty melody and fiddle underlining the sad mood.

Underlining the comparisons to George, Sammy picked an obscure George Jones song to record. ‘What Am I Worth’ has the protagonist plaintively questioning his value regardless of other achievements in life, because his loved one is rejecting him. A vivacious up-tempo mood belies the downbeat lyric.

My favorite track is the hardcore cheating song with a twist – both parties in the marriage are running around behind the other’s back, ‘Every Third Monday’. It was written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Billy Henderson. Also with a twist, the ballad ‘I Buy Her Roses’ initially sounds like a sweet love song, but there is a sting in the tale. The protagonist’s loved one has actually left him, and he is buying the flowers he always forgot to do when they were together. A sincerely delivered vocal sells the song effectively.

Closing out the set, ‘Harbor For A Lonely Heart’ is a pleasant but not particularly memorable ballad written by Kostas and Jenny Yates.

While Kershaw’s vocal similarity to George Jones meant he perhaps lacked a degree of individuality, there are far worse singers to emulate. This was a pretty solid album with some very fine moments, and a promising debut. It sold well at the time, and was certified platinum. Used copies can now be found very cheaply, and it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Grade: A-

Favorite country songs of the 1970s, Part 9

Some more songs that I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit. As always, I consider myself free to comment on other songs by the artist.

Arkansas”– Teddy & Doyle Wilburn (1972)
The last chart hit for a duo that was of more importance as businessmen than as recording artists. This song got to #47 (#29 on Cashbox). The Wilburns remained important for many years to follow through their publishing companies and other enterprises. One of their protégées, Patty Loveless is still actively recording and performing.

One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” – Little David Wilkins(1975)
This song got to #11; it figures that an equally large performer, Johnny Russell, was his closest friend in the business.

“We Should Be Together”– Don Williams (1974)
This was Don’s first top five recording. The single issued immediately prior to this “Come Early Morning” b/w ”Amanda” was a double sided hit , with the two sides splitting the airplay. This record was issued on the small JMI label – within a year Don would be signed by a major label and his career would jet into the stratosphere.

Why Don’t You Love Me” – Hank Williams(1976)
I don’t know why MGM reissued this 1950 single that spent 10 weeks at #1 in its original release. It only got to #61 this time around, but any excuse to list a Hank Williams single is welcome.

“Eleven Roses” – Hank Williams, Jr. (1972)
This Darrell McCall-penned song spent two weeks at #1. I was torn between listing this song or “I’ll Think of Something”, which Mark Chesnutt took to #1 in 1992. The pre-outlaw Hank Jr. was a pretty good straight ahead country singer.

“He Will Break Your Heart” – Johnny Williams (1972)
Johnny Williams was a soul singer from Chicago. This song reached #68. Country audiences became familiar with this song as Johnny Paycheck recorded it in 1971 on his first album for Epic. Although Billboard did not track album cuts at the time, country DJs gave the song so many spins off Paycheck’s album that I was sure that that Epic would issue the song as a Paycheck single.

“Country Girl With Hot Pants On” – Leona Williams (1972)
Great singer/songwriter, better remembered as one of the Hag’s ex-wives. While it’s been 26 years since she charted, she still is issuing great albums for the Heart of Texas label. ”Country Girl With Hot Pants On” only reached #52 but did much better in some markets. Her biggest hit was “The Bull and the Beaver” which reached #8 in 1978.

“I Wanna Go Country” – Otis Williams and The Midnight Cowboys (1971)
One of several black singers to attempt to follow Charley Pride, this all-black band from the Cincinnati area was led by the former lead singer of The Charms, who had several pop hits during the 1950s including “Hearts of Stone”. This was the only record to chart country but it, and the album from which it came, were both excellent.

“The Night Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel For Single Girls Burned Down“ – Tex Williams (1972)

Tex was a big star during the 1940s, both as part of Spade Cooley’s band and on his own, with a mega-hit with “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)“ which went #1 country (16 weeks) and pop (6 weeks) in 1947. This amusing story reached #29 Billboard /#18 Cashbox, his last real hit. Tex died in 1985 of lung cancer.

“Ida Red” – Bob Wills (1976)
New version of Bob’s 1938 hit – reached #99 for one week. Bob had chart hits throughout the 1940s. His most famous song, “New San Antonio Rose, was nearing the end of its pop chart run when Billboard started their country charts on January 1, 1944. Had the charts been started six months earlier the song would have spent many weeks at #1.

“There’s A Song On The Jukebox” – David Wills (1975)
This was one of two top ten records for Wills, a protégé of Charlie Rich, who produced his first three singles. I don’t hear any resemblance to Rich, but he was a fine singer.

“Do It To Someone You Love” – Norro Wilson (1970)
The only top twenty record for one of Nashville’s leading producers and songwriters. Charlie Rich had huge hits with his “The Most Beautiful Girl”, “Very Special Love Song” and “I Love My Friend”.

“Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” – Mac Wiseman (1970)
Mac is probably the best bluegrass vocalist – ever. Known as ‘The Voice With A Heart’, this amusing record went top forty, a major feat for 50 year old bluegrass artist.

“The Wonders You Perform” – Tammy Wynette (1971)
Just a song I happen to like. This record reached #1 on Record World and #2 on Cashbox.

“Goin’ Steady” – Faron Young (1971)
A remake of his 1952 smash, this speeded up version is probably my favorite Faron Young track. From 1969 to 1971, Faron had six songs reach #1 on one or more of the major charts. “Step Aside”, “Leavin’ And Sayin’ Goodbye” and “Four In The Morning” were also classic songs from this period.

Country Heritage: Con Hunley

In an article which appeared on the9513.com in March of 2010, titled Forgotten Artists: Ten from the ’80s, Pt. 1, I had the following to say about Con Hunley:

“I have no idea why Con Hunley didn’t become a big star. He had an excellent voice and the look that 1980s record labels were seeking. Perhaps his voice was too distinctive, as it was smoky with strong blues flavoring. At any rate, he charted 25 times (11 Top 20 hits) from 1977-86, with his biggest national hit being “What’s New With You,” which reached #11 in 1981. I doubt that anyone remembers him for that song, however, as other songs such as “Week-End Friend” (#13), “I’ve Been Waiting For You All My Life” (#14), “You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart (#14), “Since I Fell For You” (#20) and “Oh Girl” (#12) were all huge regional hits, reaching Top 5 status in many markets.”

That doesn’t seem like enough to say about this superlative vocalist so here goes:

Conrad Logan “Con” Hunley (born April 9, 1945) was born in Union County, Tennessee, an area which also produced such country legends as Roy Acuff and Carl Smith. Con was born into a musical family and at age nine his parents bought him a used “Stella” guitar for Christmas. Con soon taught himself to play Chet Atkins thumb-style guitar; however, his biggest early influence was to be found among R&B artists, particularly Ray Charles.

Con’s first professional job came in 1964, courtesy of the Eagles Lodge in downtown Knoxville. In 1965 Con joined the United States Air Force in 1965. After basic training, Con was sent to a tech school at Chanute AFB in Illinois where he was taught aircraft hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Con learned so well that he was made an instructor. While there, he played area bars and clubs with a local band. Later Con was transferred to Castle AFB near Atwater, CA, where he found a job playing piano at the Empire Lounge in Atwater.

After his tour of duty was finished Hunley returned to Knoxville and began performing weekly at a local nightclub owned by Sam Kirkpatrick, who formed the independent label Prairie Dust Records to showcase Hunley’s talents. After some minor success on the country music charts with three 1977 singles charting in the lower regions outside the top fifty, Hunley caught the attention of Warner Brothers Records (WB), who signed him in 1978.

Hunley’s first WB single, a cover of Jimmy C. Newman’s  “Cry Cry Darling”, cracked the top forty, reaching #34. From this point forward, Con Hunley had eleven straight singles that reached the Billboard Top Twenty, although none reached the top ten.  This singles were all on the border between Country and R&B (this during a time when R&B was actually music). “Weekend Friend” started the parade, reaching #13 in October 1978. This was followed by a cover of the Leon Payne classic “You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart”  which reached #14 . This was followed “I’ve Been Waiting For You All Of My Life” which also reached #14 (although according to Cashbox the record reached #10 and was Con’s biggest hit – this squares with my recollections of the record and its airplay in Central Florida). Paul Anka would have a pop hit with the record two years later in 1981.

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Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Super Hits’

Steve Wariner didn’t become a staple at country radio until he signed with MCA in 1984, though he was already a veteran recording artist with six years and 17 charting singles under his belt. Released in 1998 and originally intended as a budget release, Super Hits anthologizes the portion of his catalog controlled by BMG (now Sony) Music. It consists primarily of his early recordings for RCA, along with a few tracks from his early 90s stint with Arista Records. It is the only currently available compilation of his early hits.

These recordings are very much a product of their time, which unfortunately means heavily pop-influenced 80s production that sounds quite dated to modern listeners. However, the songs themselves are quite good, and since Steve was experiencing his first chart successes at about the same time I became interested in country music, they hold great nostalgia value for me.

Wariner had been playing bass guitar in Dottie West’s band for seven years by the time he inked his deal with RCA in 1978. His first release for the label was “I’m Already Taken”, which peaked at #63 and is not included in this collection. A string of low-charting singles followed before he cracked the Top 40 for the first time with 1980’s “Your Memory”, which is the earliest hit included here. Written by Charles Quillen and John Schweers, and produced by Norro Wilson and Tony Brown, “Your Memory” climbed all the way to #7. Its successor, “By Now” did slightly better, reaching #6. “All Roads Lead To You”, produced by Tom Collins who was well known at the time for his work with Ronnie Milsap and Barbara Mandrell, became Steve’s first #1 hit in 1981. It was written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan, who penned many of Mandrell’s early 80s hits, as well as Sylvia’s 1982 smash “Nobody”. Telling the story of a road construction worker struggling in vain to forget about his lost love, “All Roads Lead To You” was one of my very favorite songs from this era. I still like it, though I don’t think quite as highly of it now as I did at the time.

After “All Roads Lead To You”, Wariner’s chart success became inconsistent. “Kansas City Lights”, which was also produced by Collins, stalled at #15, but in spite of its failure to crack the Top 10, it is probably the best remembered of his RCA hits. It was followed by three singles that all failed to crack the Top 20.

In spite of Steve’s success at radio, RCA resisted releasing an album for four years, utilizing a tactic that has more or less become standard operating procedure for major labels today. When they finally did get around to releasing an album, 1982’s Steve Wariner, it consisted of six singles, including all of the aforementioned songs. His second album, 1983’s Midnight Fire, found him once again utilizing the services of Norro Wilson and Tony Brown. Midnight Fire produced two Top 5 hits, the title track and “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers”, as well as “Why Goodbye” which peaked at #12. These tracks sound more country – a fiddle can actually be heard on “Midnight Fire”! – and have aged better than his earlier releases. These represent Wariner’s final commercial successes for RCA. He departed the label for MCA shortly thereafter. RCA released a Greatest Hits collection that included two new tracks that went nowhere on the charts. In 1986, RCA finally got around to releasing Down In Tennessee, which had been recorded in 1978 and intended to be Steve’s debut album.

The remaining three tracks on this album were recorded for Arista in the early 90s, and represent a marked change in style from the RCA recordings. “Leave Him Out Of This”, Steve’s first release for Arista in 1991, reached #6. His remake of Bill Anderson’s “The Tips Of My Fingers” climbed to #3 and is one of the finest recordings of Wariner’s career. Completing the set is “If I Didn’t Love You”, a #8 hit from Steve’s second Arista album, 1993’s Drive.

While most of these tracks are not essential listening except for the die-hard fan, they do provide an interesting look at Steve’s development as an artist.

Grade: B

Super Hits is available on CD from third party sellers on Amazon at ridiculous prices and can be downloaded for a more reasonable $5.99.

George & Tammy: Mr. & Mrs. Country Music

Long before Tim McGraw and Faith Hill became country music’s power couple, George Jones and Tammy Wynette fulfilled that role as Mr. & Mrs. Country Music. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton may have sung about the ups and downs of life and love during the 1970s, but George and Tammy actually lived it.

Their earliest recordings date back to November 1968 when Tammy sang harmony vocals on “The Race Is On”, “I’ll Share My World With You”, and “The Hardest Part of All”, all remakes of earlier hits that George had re-cut for use as album filler. Tammy’s performances were uncredited, since she was under contract to Epic Records and George was still signed to Musicor. Cross-label collaborations were virtually unheard of in those days; only artists that were signed to the same label could record with each other. Tammy did appear on the cover of George’s 1969 LP I’ll Share My World With You; her Epic contract apparently did not prohibit her from doing so. She can be heard quite prominently on the 1969 recording “Never Grow Cold”, which she and George wrote together. This song is virtually a duet; it was buried on an album, since releasing it as a single would almost certainly have invited a lawsuit from CBS (Epic’s parent company at the time). The pair later re-recorded the song for Epic.

The pair wanted to record together regularly and more openly, so George negotiated a release from his Musicor contract — costing him $300,000 out of his own pocket — and signed with Epic in 1971. The first official Jones and Wynette duet, “Take Me”, under Billy Sherrill’s guidance, appeared later that year. It was a remake of George’s 1965 solo hit. The original version had reached #8. The duet version did almost as well, climbing to #9. It was followed up by “The Ceremony”, a #3 hit in which the pair exchanged sung wedding vows, in response to lines spoken by a minister. The next two singles, the gospel tune “Old Fashioned Singing” and “Let’s Build A World Together” fared less well, just cracking the Top 40.
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Album Review: George Jones – ‘Step Right Up 1970-1979: A Critical Anthology’

George had become disillusioned with Pappy Daily’s business practices. His marriage to Tammy Wynette in 1969 encouraged him to make the momentous decision to move to her label Epic, and to co-opt her producer Billy Sherrill. George was forced to buy himself out of his Musicor contract, but it was money well spent, even though his chart record remained somewhat inconsistent. George’s move to Epic saw him at the peak of his vocal prowess, married to Billy Sherrill’s smooth, Nashville Sound production.

This superb compilation contains six of George’s last tracks for Musicor, and over 20 of the finest tracks he recorded in his first eight years on Epic. These were the years of his troubled marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette, and the years his intensifying battles with drugs and alcohol earned him the inglorious nickname ‘No Show Jones’ and saw his health break down, but in the studio George Jones was creating magic and leading up to what many will call his finest moment on record. Step Right Up mixes classic hits with some well-chosen lesser known album cuts. The material is almost uniformly great here, concentrating on the sad songs at which George Jones has always excelled. Vocally George does not put a foot wrong, although some aspects of the production, mainly the backing vocals, now sound a little dated. The only reason to debate whether this album is worth buying is whether you might not try to get hold of the constituent albums, at least some of which are available on CD reissues.

George’s first single of the 70s, as he approached the end of his time with Musicor, was ‘Where Grass Won’t Grow’, a bleak, echoey tale of rural poverty in Tennessee,

Trying to grow corn and cotton on ground so poor that grass won’t grow

culminating in the death of the protagonist’s wife, buried in that same soil. The song, written by George’s old friend and drinking partner Earl Montgomery, was perhaps too downbeat to chart higher than the lower reaches of the top 30, but its quality led it to become regarded as a classic Jones record.

The exquisite expression of emotional devastation in ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ (written by Jerry Chestnut) is one of George’s most masterly vocal performances, reaching #2 on Billboard.

A handful of less well-known late Musicor cuts are also included. The tender steel-laced ballad of love for the protagonist’s motherless child, ‘She’s Mine’, co-written by George with Jack Ripley, was a top 10 hit. Slightly less successful, peaking at #13, was a great Dallas Frazier/Sanger D Shafer composition ‘Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong’, in which George manfully tries to pretend everything’s alright and his wife isn’t cheating on him, unusually featuring the Jones Boys’ backing. Another Dallas Frazier song (this time with A L Owens), ‘She’s As Close As I Can Get To Loving You’, has another great lead vocal, but is marred by excessive Nashville Sound backing vocals. Wayne Kemp’s ballad ‘Image Of Me’ has the protagonist confessing his shame that he has “dragged down” a simple old-fashioned country girl and made her into a honky-tonk angel, with another very fine vocal performance. Earl Montgomery’s ‘Right Won’t Touch A Hand’, a passionate confession of regret for jealousy which destroyed a relationship, was yet another top 10 hit in 1971.

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Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘No Place That Far’

After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.

Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.

Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30.  It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly.  I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.

Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher.  Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters.  Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.

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Album Review: John Anderson – ‘John Anderson 2’

1981_john_anderson_2countryAs the title suggests, John Anderson 2, was the singer’s second studio album for Warner Brothers, released in 1981. Produced by Norro Wilson, it picked up where the previous year’s debut album left off, calling on some of Nashville’s premier songwriters and musicians, and stood in stark contrast to the typical Urban Cowboy fare of the day. Among the legendary musicians contributing to the album were Harold Bradley (Owen’s brother), Jerry Reed, and Fred Carter, Jr. (Deana’s father) on guitar, Pete Drake on steel guitar, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano.

The opening track, “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)”, an instant classic composed by Billy Joe Shaver, was the first single released from the album. It brought Anderson to the Top 5 for the first time, peaking at #4.

It was followed up by “Chicken Truck”, composed by Anderson, Ervan James Parker, and Monroe Fields. This is a light-hearted tune about a motorist who is stuck on the highway behind a truck transporting chickens, which it is unable to pass. It’s my least favorite song on the entire album; the lyrics are foolish, and it has some rock overtones, which make it seem out of place with the rest of the album. It is also an indication of things that were to come in the relatively near future; it’s somewhat similar to 1983’s “Swingin'”, the biggest — and worst, from an artistic standpoint — hit of Anderson’s career. The production on “Chicken Truck” isn’t as obnoxious as the tune it foreshadows, but it wears thin after repeated listenings. Radio programmers apparently agreed; even though it reached #8, this song had a short shelf-life. I don’t ever remember hearing it on the radio, which suggests that it didn’t have any staying power as a recurrent once its chart run was finished.

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