My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Osborne Brothers

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘I Serve A Savior’

Josh Turner’s deep religious faith has underpinned his career, from his astonishing debut single ‘Long Black Train’. It comes as no surprise that he has now recorded a gospel album – or indeed that ‘Long Black Train’ makes another appearance.

Josh wrote the title track with Mark Narmore. It is quite a nice song set to a gentle melody in which he sets out the story of salvation and affirms his own commitment. It is one of only two new songs on the album, although some choices are less familiar than others. The other is actually the album’s one misstep. ‘The River (Of Happiness)’ was written by Josh’s wife Jennifer and son Hampton, and the whole family sings along live (apart from Josh himself). The song itself is not bad. Unfortunately the children can’t all sing In tune.

My favorite track is a measured, deeply sincere, reading of the Hank Williams classic ‘I Saw The Light’, backed by the sweet harmonies of Sonya Isaacs. I also loved the less well known ‘I Pray My Way Out Of Trouble’, a charming song written by Loretta Lynn and Teddy Wilburn. It was recorded by the Osborne Brothers in the 1960s, and Bobby Osborne contributes harmonies to this version.

There is a solid version of spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ which allows Josh to showcase the furthest reaches of his deep voice. ‘Without Him’ Is from the Southern Gospel tradition and has an emotional soulful vocal.

Classic hymns ‘Great Is Your Faithfulness’, ‘How Great Thou Art’ and (the best of the three) ‘Amazing Grace’ are all performed with reverence to tasteful arrangements. A more unusual inclusion is the short (very short if you’re thinking of it as a song, at only 42 seconds) ‘Doxology’ composed In the 17th century by Bishop Ken. Josh sings this quite simply and completely acappella. Really, this ought to close the set, but a retread of the sunny ‘Me And God’ (from Your Man) follows it.

Impeccably sung, arranged and produced, if not very original, this is a fine record with appeal for fans of Josh Turner or Christian country music.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

“Traditional country music is a whole different genre,” Vincent said. “A lot of people will say that there is not a market for traditional country music, but I know that is not true as it has its own niche. I did that traditional country album with Gene Watson not long ago, and I found out that there is a tremendous audience out there for traditional country music. Daryle and I have been doing shows together, and he is so much fun. When everybody hears this new album, they will know how special it is.” – Rhonda Vincent discussing American Grandstand. h/t That Nashville Sound

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Your Money and My Good Looks, which helped redefine Vincent’s pedigree beyond bluegrass. American Grandstand is a companion album of sorts to the project with Watson, a chance to recreate the magic all over again. Her friendship with Daryle Singletary goes back 23 years when they were labelmates on Giant Records. One of their earliest collaborations, a cover of Keith Whitley’s “Would These Arms Be In Your Way,” appeared on his self-titled debut album. They’ve collaborated frequently through the years, most recently on “We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds,” from Vincent’s Only Me in 2014.

To say American Grandstand has been a long time coming is an understatement. With the timing finally right, they went into the studio to craft an album that mixes old and new, covers of classic duets interwoven amongst tracks newly-composed. A few of the duets may be oft-covered, but in the care of Vincent and Singletary, are as expertly executed as they’ve ever been. They tackle the mournful nature of “After The Fire Is Gone” with ease and extract the effervesce from “Golden Ring” without issue. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a revelation, one of the strongest collaborative recordings I’ve heard in years.

They also surprise, with a stunning rendition of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’ lesser-known “Slowly and Surely.” Also not as famous is George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “One,” which the pair released in 1996. Vincent and Singletary’s serviceable take is the album’s lead single. Other surprises include Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” which they deliver flawlessly. A third Jones cover, “A Picture of Me (Without You)” is also very good. “Up This Hill and Down,” which originated with The Osborne Brothers, is excellent.

The remainder of the album consists of the new songs, which include a reprise of “We Must Be Out of Our Minds.” These tracks are all ballads, which varying degrees of tempo. “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye,” about the end of a relationship, feels like the kind of track Singletary would’ve recorded back in the mid-1990s. In any other era, “Can’t Live Life” would be cemented as a standard.

If you can believe it, the rest of the album only slightly pails in comparison to the title track, which showcases Vincent as a songwriter (she wrote it solo). The spellbinding ballad is a grand finale of sorts, detailing the tale of duet partners preparing for their final show and the emotions attached to such an ending. I love how Vincent presents the well-worn themes in a new and exciting light.

American Grandstand is everything you would expect from a Vincent and Singletary collaboration, yet it’s even more deeply satisfying than you could even imagine. In a rare move, they actually sang together in the studio, at the instance of Singetary, who knew immediately that recording separately wasn’t going to work. The pair were born to sing together, even if Vincent’s power overtakes Singletary’s understated charm on occasion. He sounds to me like a modern day incarnation of Whitley, with a voice that has deepened over the years. It proves that Whitley’s influence continues to this day, which only makes this record even more special and essential.

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Revelations from Music Vendor/ Record World

Hit_Country_RecordsAs the ‘last man standing’ Billboard‘s country charts have taken on an almost mythical importance, yet for most of the 1940s and 1950s, Billboard did a relatively poor job in recording the history of country singles in that their various country charts only went 10-15 places deep.

Music Vendor (later Record World) started tracking country music in 1954 and immediately started tracking 55 chart places for country records, a depth of country charts Billboard wouldn’t approach until 1964 when Billboard went to 50 places. For purposes of simplicity, I will always refer to Music Vendor/ Record World as ‘Record World‘.

Joel Whitburn’s new volume Hit Country Records 1954-1982: Music Vendor/Record World performs a valuable service in restoring to the known discography of country music a staggering 1700 songs and 200 artists that Billboard failed to chronicle.

I always thought that the Wilburn Brothers had a relatively thin representation on the Billboard charts with 31 chart entries from 1954-1972, with many songs that I knew to have been at least mid-level hits not being tracked by Billboard. Turns out that the Wilburn Brothers were the poorest served of all country artists by Billboard with a staggering 30 songs not tracked by Billboard. Other artists with huge holes in their Billboard chart discographies include Hank Snow (26 songs), Eddy Arnold (23 songs), Kitty Wells (21 songs), Hank Thompson (21 songs), Johnnie & Jack (20 songs) and Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky and George Jones (each with 19 songs).

Among Bluegrass artists, Flatt & Scruggs pick up an extra 15 chart entries, Mac Wiseman (13), Jimmy Martin (6), Bill Monroe (4), and the Osborne Brothers (4).

There were also apparently differences in how artists were classified. Country audiences always loved Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, George Hamilton IV and Conway Twitty, a fact Billboard somehow failed to acknowledge. After missing “Jambalaya”, Billboard tracked “One Step At A Time”, and then missed the next eleven consecutive Brenda Lee songs including such monsters as “Dynamite”, “Sweet Nothings”, “Fool #1” and “Break It To Me Gently”.

The track record on Elvis was worse as Billboard failed to track “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Blue Suede Shoes”, along with 15 more songs.

Record World tracked six George Hamilton IV singles before Billboard got around to recognizing “Before This Day Ends” as a country single. Ditto for Conway Twitty who Billboard picked up as country with “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, after ten singles had already been tracked by Record World.

While most of the songs that Music Vendor/Record World picked up were second tier hits, there were some surprising Billboard misses uncovered such as the George Jones favorites “Tall Tall Trees”, “Eskimo Pie” and “Nothing Can Stop Me (Loving You)”. A very famous song from 1955 was Bobby Lord’s 1955 hit “Hawkeye”; Billboard missed the song entirely on any of its charts, whereas Record World had it charting for twelve weeks, reaching #16.

I mentioned that approximately 200 artists show up in this book that Billboard never tracked on its country charts. These include Carl Dobkins Jr (three songs including “My Heart Is An Open Book” which Record World has as a #2 country hit, and Billboard had reach #3 pop), Pete Drake (three instrumental singles), and Buddy Holly (four singles including “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby”).

I’ve only had this fascinating book for two days and I will probably report further as time permits, but it would be remiss of me not to further examine the song that initially got me interested in charts. Yes – I do mean “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and The Oakies. Cashbox had the record reach #1 on its country chart (#24 pop) for two weeks whereas Billboard had the record stall out at #42 on the country chart while reaching #30 on the pop charts. This was the biggest chart disparity ever between singles that reached #1 on either the Billboard or Cashbox country chart but not the other chart.

The record was hugely successful, selling a million copies between the US and Canadian markets (it was a top ten hit on several Canadian regional pop charts), so I was curious to see how Record World treated “Groovy Grubworm” on its country charts, recalling that Record World had the song chart higher on its pop chart (#23) than did either Cashbox or Billboard.

Drum roll please :

Record World had the song reach #3 for one week on its country chart during its thirteen week chart run.

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Brotherhood’

brotherhoodThere’s something very special about the harmonies created by two brothers. One of the best duos in modern bluegrass or country music consists of the Gibson Brothers, Leigh and Eric. in their latest release, they pay tribute to some of the great fraternal partnerships of the past, and the result is sublime.

Their version of the Everly Brothers’ big pop hit ‘Bye Bye Love’ is darker and more melancholy than the perky original, drawing on the implicit sadness of the Felice/Boudleaux Bryant lyric. Another Everlys cut, ‘Crying In The Rain’ showcases the pair’s compelling vocals on a tune written by iconic pop singer-songwriter Carole King.

The haunting ‘Long Time Gone’ (also once recorded by the Everlys) is another standout. The similarly titled but pacier ‘Long Gone’ comes from the same writer, Leslie York of the York Brothers, a sibling duo active in the 1940s and 50s.

‘The Sweetest Gift’, a beautiful story about a mother visiting a prisoner son, has been recorded by everyone from the Blue Sky Boys in the 40s to the Judds. The Gibson Brothers’ version is wonderful, imbued with the tenderness and desperation of the mother’s love for her “erring, but precious son”, and stands up against any of the previous versions, with an interesting arrangement of their harmonies. ‘Eastbound Train’ also deals with a prisoner’s loved one, and is a traditionally styled ballad telling the sweetly sentimental story of a little girl taking the train to seek a pardon for her father, who is not only in prison but also blind. The conductor is moved by her sad story and lets her travel for free.

Also very much in traditional vein, the Louvin Brothers’ melancholy ‘Seven Year Blues’ is outstanding.

‘I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled’ picks up the pace with a jaundiced lyric, while the perky ‘Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes’ brightens the mood. A tender ‘It’ll Be Her’ (a hit for Tompall and the Glaser Brothers) is gorgeous.

The Gibsons are joined by Ronnie Reno, a onetime member of the Osborne Brothers’ band, to sing ‘Each Season Changes You’, a pretty plaintive song popularised by the latter. Reno also helps out on the upbeat ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’.

‘I Have Found The Way’ is traditional bluegrass gospel, written by Bill Monroe’s brother Charlie and recorded by the Monroes in 1937,before Bill invented bluegrass as a discrete genre. Ronnie and Rob McCoury join the Gibsons on a sincere ‘What A Wonderful Savior Is He’. The lesser known ‘An Angel With Blue Eyes’ anticipates reunion in heaven with a loved one, an dis sung with commitment.

The combination of compelling harmonies and great songs, backed by tasteful bluegrass arrangements make this an essential putrchase.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Two Highways’

twohighwaysAlison Krauss’ contract with Rounder required her to alternate her solo albums with collaborations with her band. Two Highways is the first album under that arrangement credited to Alison Krauss & Union Station. Released in 1989 at a time when bluegrass was still largely regarded as country music’s red-headed stepchild, it is by and large a traditional affair. It has little of the genre envelope-pushing for which Alison would later become known, though it is a softer and more polished sound than was typical of bluegrass up to that time. It was produced by Bill Vorndick. Guest artist Jerry Douglas plays dobro along with regular band members Jeff White, Mike Harman, and John Pennell.

Even though she shares the spotlight with her band members, Alison — who was still only 18 years old when the album was released — is the glue that holds everything together. She plays fiddle throughout the album and sings lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, sounding at times like a young Dolly Parton. The similarity to Dolly is most apparent on the Larry Cordle-penned title track and Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Alone Again”.

Bass player John Pennell, who contributed much of the material to Alison’s solo album Too Late To Cry, supplies three tracks here: “Love You In Vain”, “Here Comes Goodbye” and “As Lovely As You”, one of the highlights of the album which features Jeff White singing lead vocals with some lovely backing vocals from Alison. Two instrumental numbers – the traditional “Beaumont Rag” and Kenny Baker’s “Windy City Rag” allow the band to shine. The album’s best track is “Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew”, a cover of an old Osborne Brothers song, and the most unusual is a remake of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”, which works surprisingly well with a bluegrass arrangement.

Two Highways did not produce any hit singles, nor did it make the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It garnered little attention outside the world of bluegrass, but it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album in 1990 and it is one of the albums upon which future star Alison Krauss built her reputation.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Jean Shepard

jean shepard 1You gaze at that guitar on your knee
In a way that you never look at me
This love affair of yours has gone too far
And I’m tired of playing second fiddle to an old guitar

— From “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” Capitol Records, 1964

Kitty Wells may have been the reigning Queen of Country Music during the 1950s, but in the eyes of many (including myself) Jean Shepard had at least as good a claim to the title. Whereas Kitty Wells, after the uncharacteristically defiant “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” reverted back to songs of domestic bliss and of being the “wronged woman,” Jean Shepard kept pushing the boundaries for female country singers. Jean may not have pushed things as far as Loretta Lynn did during the late 1960s and 70s, but she laid the groundwork for Loretta and those to follow. Among Europeans, whose tastes in country music run to more traditional sounds, many regard her as the greatest of all female country singers, a sentiment that was echoed by such leading British county music journalists as Pat Campbell, Bob Powell, and David Allen. While I don’t regard Shepard quite that highly, on my personal list of the greatest female country singers of all time, she would be in my top three (greatest, as opposed to most popular or most influential) singers. During her peak years (roughly 1953-75) she was a definite force of nature

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Oklahoma, she was the child of parents who moved to Bakersfield, California, as a result of the Dust Bowl that engulfed the midwest during the 1930s. Since Shepard has been staunchly performing modern traditional country music for over sixty years, it seems only fitting that she grew up and started her career in the area surrounding Bakersfield, California.

Jean began her career as a bass player in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band formed in 1948. Not long thereafter, she came to the attention of Hank Thompson, who, impressed by her talents, helped her get a record deal with Capitol Records–where she worked with Thompson’s producer, Ken Nelson. At the time she inked her deal, Shepard was still a teenager.

On her Capitol recordings, Shepard was a honky-tonker whose hard-core sound could rival any of her male counterparts. While her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” failed to chart, it showed enough promise for Capitol to team her with another promising singer, Ferlin Husky, for the 1953 chart-topper “A Dear John Letter,” a song which resonated with many returning Korean War veterans. After this, the solo hits started coming with “Beautiful Lies” and “A Satisfied Mind” being among the biggest hits of 1955 ( “A Satisfied Mind” was also a major hit for Porter Wagoner and Red Foley, but after you’ve heard Jean Shepard’s version, you will forget about the others).

Along the way, Shepard became a part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee (broadcast from Springfield, MO on ABC TV) from 1955 to 1957, and she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, where she has remained a member to this day. It was during this period that Jean released what may have been country music’s first album centered around a theme in Songs of a Love Affair. Shepard had a hand in writing all twelve songs on this album.

She continued to have hits throughout the fifties and sixties, although like many other traditional country singers her hits became increasingly smaller as rock ‘n roll and the Nashville sound came into prominence. Lost in the shuffle were such excellent singles as “Act Like A Married Man,” “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone,” “I Used To Love You,” and “Have Heart, Will Love.”

In 1960 Shepard married Hawkshaw Hawkins, a minor star whose forte was his live stage shows rather than recording success. Jean was pregnant with his son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. at the time of the 1963 plane crash that claimed Hawkins’ life (as well as those of Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Patsy Cline).

After her son’s birth, Shepard dealt with the tragedy of her husband’s death by pouring herself back into her career. In 1964 she rebounded back near the top of the charts with the feisty “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” a song which spotlighted her yodeling ability. The next few years would produce more hits including “Seven Lonely Days,” “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” and a rare ballad “Another Lonely Night.” She also teamed up with Ray Pillow for several duets, including the big hit “I’ll Take the Dog” in 1966.

Between 1965 and 1970 Shepard charted fifteen Top 40 hits. Eventually, though, Capitol –- blessed with a deep roster that included Wanda Jackson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Sonny James –quit pushing her recordings to radio.

A switch to United Artists (UA) in 1973 re-ignited her career as her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away,” went to #4  Billboard /#1 Cashbox /#1 Record World  , and was followed by such great singles as “At The Time,” “I’ll Do Anything It Takes (To Stay With You),” “Poor Sweet Baby,” “Tip of My Fingers,” and “Another Neon Night.” One of her UA albums, Poor Sweet Baby, was composed entirely of songs written by Bill Anderson.  Shepard remained with UA for five years.  Since then she has recorded only occasionally for various minor labels.

Along the way, Shepard married Benny Birchfield, (best known for his tenor harmonies during his tenure with the Osborne Brothers bluegrass group). She also served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, the perfect spokesperson for this very traditionalist organization.

In 2010, Jean was inducted into the Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2011, Jean was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor three decades overdue.

Jean Shepard has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1955 and continues to perform regularly on the Grand Old Opry where she is indeed, the “Grand Lady of the Opry,” and a national treasure. She also tours occasionally, (in the past she sometimes performed with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. but I haven’t heard much about him recently).  She’s lost a little off her vocal ‘chops’ over the course of time, but even 85% of Jean Shepard is a lot more than 100% of most singers.

Discography

Vinyl

Capitol Records issued twenty-one albums on Jean Shepard from 1956 to 1975 (one of these was a duet album with Ray Pillow) plus there were some budget reissues released on the Hilltop label. United Artists issued five albums plus a Greatest Hits collection from 1973 to 1976.

Albums on either Capitol or United Artist  will capture Jean at the peak of her vocal prowess. Later albums will still catch Jean in good voice but with less care given to the accompaniment and production, although the album Stars of the Grand Ole Opry issued in 1981 on Pete Drake’s First Generation Records, is a pretty good effort.

CD / Digital

The CD catalog for Shepard isn’t what it should be, although the Bear Family boxed set titled Melody Ranch Girl is available. The folks at Collector’s Choice Music described it thus, “151 legendary Capitol sides from the woman who broke through the thick gender barrier in country music without looking back! This is everything Jean recorded from 1952–1964—from ‘A Dear John Letter’ up through ‘Second Fiddle (to an Old Guitar)’—including her landmark album Songs of a Love Affair, the first concept album recorded by a female country artist, plus her Got You on My Mind, Lonesome Love and Heartaches and Tears albums. A 36-page book with a newly researched biography, discography and rare photos completes the story.”

For folks wanting to sample Jean’s work without shelling out over $100, there are some decent alternatives available.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently lists nine titles available, including the above-mentioned Melody Ranch Girl boxed set and the CD version of Stars of the Grand Ole Opry and an outstanding two disc set released recently by the UK label Jasmine titled The First Lady of Country, which is composed of four of Jean’s early Capitol albums (Songs of A Love Affair, Lonesome Love, This Is Jean Shepard, and Got You On My Mind).

I am not sure of the vintage of the recordings on the other sets available from Ernest Tubb, but if you call them, the folks taking your order often can give useful information.

The Country Music Foundation in 1995 issued the stellar Jean Shepard: Honky-Tonk Heroine, which has 24 songs taken from her tenure at Capitol. It may still be possible to obtain this disc. That same year Castle Communications (Australasia) issued A Satisfied Mind which has 26 tracks (17 Capitol recordings and 9 United Artist recordings)– this is the only set (of which I am aware) that contains original United Artist recordings.

Other collections available are of uncertain vintage. Jean has issued some CDs herself (Jean, Personal Favorites, and perhaps other titles) that are often remakes but contain some song titles otherwise unavailable. I have several of these discs and they are worth obtaining.

Amazon (and probably other sites, as well) have some of Jean’s music available as digital downloads. The available music appears to be a mixed bag of originals and remakes but fortunately you can hear samples before purchasing.   While recording quality can vary, there are no bad Jean Shepard vocal performances on any of the recordings that I’ve heard.

Abum Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘One Step Ahead’

One Step Ahead was Rhonda’s 2003 release for Rounder and the first of her albums to really showcase her skills as a songwriter. As always, Rhonda is accompanied by a fine cast of supporting musicians including such aces as Aubrey Haynie (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Ronnie Stewart (banjo), Stewart Duncan (fiddle) and brother Darrin Vincent (bass).

The album opens up with “Kentucky Borderline”, a fine breakdown composed by Ms Vincent and Terry Herd. You could describe this one as a train song in the finest tradition of Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. The great vocal harmonies on this track are supplied by Jamie Dailey and brother Darrin.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is a gentle ballad from the pens of Curtis Wright and T.J. Knight about a love possibly about to disintegrate slowly.

I’ll give you my love
For the rest of my life
But I want to make sure you know
You can’t take it with you when you go

This song was released as a single to radio, reaching #58.

“One Step Ahead of The Blues” is another Vincent & Herd composition, an up-tempo tune featuring Alison Krauss on harmony vocals. This song probably should have been released as a single. Instead it was the second song on a CD single of “If Heartaches Had Wings” (a song not on this album) released in 2004.

Another Vincent/Herd composition is “Caught In The Crossfire” a rather sad story of divorce as seen through the eyes of a child

I’m caught in the crossfire
Of a world that’s so unkind
I love ‘em both but I can’t choose
Which one to leave behind

“Ridin’ The Red Line” is the song of a truck driver’s homecoming. Another Vincent/Herd composition, the song is noteworthy for the fine mandolin work by Aubrey Haynie with augmented mandolin fills by Cody Kilby.

Webb Pierce, June Hazelwood and Wayne Walker share the songwriting credits on an oldie, “Pathway of Teardrops”. This song has been recorded by many artists, but this version is very reminiscent of the Osborne Brothers recording of the song some years earlier.

The great female vocalist Melba Montgomery supplied “An Old Memory Found Its Way Back”. While Montgomery wasn’t a bluegrass artist, I’ve found that her songs lead themselves to bluegrass interpretations. This is a great ballad sung to perfection by Rhonda Vincent.

I don’t know much about Jennifer Strickland but she sure can write a pretty ballad, this one titled “Missouri Moon” about a love that has come to its end.

Who ever thought I’d be so blue
As I cry beneath that old Missouri moon

As I asked in a prior review, what would a bluegrass album be without a religious song? Much poorer for its absence, so Rhonda has chosen the old Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee classic “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill. No version will ever replace the Stoney & Wilma Lee version in my heart, but Ms. Vincent’s version comes close, with Darrin Vincent contributing an excellent guitar solo and harmony vocals.

Another religious song follows, this one penned by Becky Buller, “Fishers Of Men”. This song is performed a cappella by Rhonda Vincent with Darrin Vincent, Mickey Harris and Eric Wilson providing the harmony vocals. This is my favorite track on the album.

Cast your nets aside
And join the battle tide
He will be your guide
To make you fishers of men

Molly Cherryholmes composed the instrumental “Frankie Belle”, the only tune on the album to feature Rhonda’s own mandolin playing.

The album closes with a short rendition of “The Martha White Theme”, a tune long associated with Flatt & Scruggs, whose portion of the Grand Ole Opry was sponsored by Martha White for decades.

One Step Ahead is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a fully realized artist. I’d give it an A. The strength of this album’s songs is demonstrated by the fact that six of these songs would be reprised in her very next album Ragin’ Live.

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 6

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

Forgive and Forget” – Eddie Rabbitt (1975)

Prior to this, Eddie was known, if at all, as a songwriter. This record got to #12, but did better than that in some markets, and gave Rabbitt his first significant hit. The next song “I Should Have Married You” got to #11; after that the next 33 singles would crack the top 10 with 19 of them getting to #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox.

Ladies Love Outlaws” – Jimmy Rabbitt and Renegade (1976)

The title track of a 1972 Waylon Jennings album, for some reason RCA never issued the song as a Jennings single, although it got considerable airplay (it didn’t chart because Billboard did not track non-singles airplay at the time). Jimmy’s version was good (Waylon’s was better) and got to #80, his only chart appearance.

Ain’t She Something Else” – Eddy Raven (1975)

Eddy’s second chart single reached #46 and became a #1 record for Conway Twitty in 1982. It took Raven eight years and 16 singles to have his first top 10 hit. Can you imagine any artist being given that much slack today

“Whatcha Gonna Do With A Dog Like That” – Susan Raye (1975)

Susan Raye had the Buck Owens organization behind her, was very pretty, and sang well. Despite those advantages, she never really became a big star, probably because her heart wasn’t in it. This song got to #9, one of six solo top tens she was to enjoy. In theory “(I’ve Got A) Happy Heart” was her biggest hit, reaching #3, but she got so much pop radio action on “L.A. International Airport” that it sold a million copies.
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Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 5

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

Let’s All Go Down To The River” – Jody Miller & Johnny Paycheck (1972)

A nice country cover of an old gospel song – how could you go wrong with this duo? Jody Miller would have a number of hits during the 1970s, although her single biggest record was in 1965 when “Queen of The House” (an answer song to Roger Miller’s “King of The Road”) went #12 pop / #5 country. I don’t know that Jody viewed herself as a country singer, but she had a sassy & sexy voice and was quite easy on the eyes.

Tom Green County Fair” – Roger Miller (1970)

Roger Miller’s career had largely run out of steam by this time, but the imagery in this song makes it one of my favorites. Alas, this song only reached #38. Roger would experience a significant renaissance in the mid-1980s writing the music for the Broadway play Big River.

Music Box Dancer” – Frank Mills (1979)

I have no idea why this song charted country as Frank Mills was an orchestra leader and this instrumental song was no more country than Lady Gaga. It was a huge pop hit reaching #3 and selling millions in the process.

Pure Love” – Ronnie Milsap (1974)

Written by Eddie Rabbitt, this was Ronnie’s first #1. How can you not like a song that contains a line like “Milk and honey and Captain Krunch and you in the morning?”

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25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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Classic Rewind: The Osborne Brothers – ‘Rocky Top’

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.

Album Review: Amber Digby – ‘Another Way To Live’

Amber Digby has earned herself a reputation as one of the finest young singers of traditional country music. Her fourth album is produced by the artist herself with husband Randy Lindley and Justin Trevino, like last year’s excellent Passion, Pride And What Might Have Been, with the same reliable production values reminiscent of the best 1960s country with lashings of fiddle and steel and a song selection policy majoring in heartbreak.

This record marks a departure of sorts in that hitherto, Amber has recorded almost exclusively revivals of older songs. Now for the first time she includes three songs she has co-written herself, but they remain firmly in the honky tonk tradition. The best of these is ‘After It Breaks’, which she wrote with Dan Powers, a classic-sounding emotional sad song with a genuinely affecting vocal performance:

With you I dealt with heartache at every turn
I witnessed true love all but crash and burn
Maybe now my soul will find the time
To get rest and find some peace of mind
Since you don’t come around here anymore
Cause I’ve cried over you just long enough
To wash away the pain no one can touch
Now gettin’ over you should be easy to take
Cause a heart don’t hurt as much after it breaks

This lovely song is the highlight of the album. Had it been written in 1965, it might now be regarded as a country classic.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Sleepless Nights’

Sleepless NightsPatty Loveless was dropped by Epic following disappointing sales and minimal airplay for her last album for the label, Dreamin’ My Dreams. She was in no hurry to make her next move, taking some time off the road to move down to Georgia, and dealing with family deaths and illness, but in 2008 she signed with the independent label Saguaro Road, and in September that year she released a new album, produced as usual by husband Emory Gordy Jr. She cast aside thoughts of regaining her chart-topping status, and instead recorded a tribute to traditional country music. It was heralded as a kind of companion piece or counterpart to 2001’s Mountain Soul, as it was billed on the cover as “the traditional country soul” of Patty Loveless. What resulted was even better than we could have expected. Sleepless Nights is a masterpiece.

Classic cover albums have a tendency to fall into one of two main categories: excessively cautious tributes where the artist sounds frankly overwhelmed by the thought of competing with a much-loved original, and ends up producing a carbon copy or high quality karaoke; and trying too hard to put their own stamp on the material in such a way that the merits of the original song are stifled. Sleepless Nights triumphantly avoids either pitfall. Patty sounds thoroughly invested in the material and style, and makes it sound alive. Her versions of each of these songs sounds as though it could have been the original classic version.

George Jones is a very challenging artist to risk comparison with, although perhaps it is less dangerous for a female vocalist where the comparisons will inevitably be less deleterious. Patty had already successfully tackled one Jones classic in the form of ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ back in the early days, and she chose to open Sleepless Nights with George’s first hit single (in 1955), the honky tonking ‘Why Baby Why’ (with a couple of minor lyric changes to fit the change in gender) which also served as the single released to promote this album. Sadly, if predictably, it was far too traditional for today’s country radio, but it is a perfect opening to the album as Patty tears into the song, the most up-tempo on the set.

Patty also picked three more Jones songs, including a truly lovely version of one of his greatest classics (written by Dickey Lee). ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ is altered here to ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. There is a fantastic take on ‘Color Of The Blues’ on which Patty actually achieves the almost impossible: improving on a song once recorded by George Jones as she infuses the lyric with pain. The most obscure Jones cover is ‘That’s All It Took’, from one of his 1960s duet albums with pop singer Gene Pitney, which is probably best known today from the 1970s cover by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Patty’s version features her former guitarist, Australian Jedd Hughes, on harmonies.

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Album Review: Pam Gadd – ‘Benefit Of Doubt’

pamgadd1I like a little bluegrass mixed in with the straight country in my musical diet, and I was pleased to hear that Pam Gadd was releasing another album.  I first came across Pam back in 1990, when she was the more prominent of the two lead singers of Wild Rose, a bluegrass-infused all-female country band who released three albums on Universal and Capitol Records, and received a Grammy instrumental nomination.  She is not as productive as some artists, having recorded just two previous solo efforts, the excellent The Road Home on Vanguard in 1997, and the not-quite-as-good The Time Of Our Lives in 2001.  Musically, Pam falls in the hinterland where acoustic country overlaps with bluegrass.  Her voice is strong and distinctive with characterful inflections.

Although there are no instrumental tracks, there is some excellent acoustic playing throughout, which complements the material rather than overwhelming it.  Pam herself plays banjo, joined by former Wild Rose bandmate Wanda Vick on dobro, Vick’s husband Mark Burchfield on bass (except on ‘Farewell Wagon Master’), Bryan Sutton on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and Aubrey Haynie on mandolin.

The tone for the album is set with the opening track, a lively and beautifully played cover of bluegrass great Jimmy Martin’s ‘Hold Whatcha Got’, a song which will be more familiar to country fans as the song which lent the title to Ricky Skaggs’s late 80s album Comin’ Home To Stay.

Pam refers back to previous aspects of her career in a number of ways on Benefit Of Doubt.  The harmony singers include Dale Ann Bradley, with whom Pam worked in the New Coon Creek Girls, another all-female group, but this time a straight bluegrass one.  Wild Rose’s drummer Nancy Given Gardner, also sings harmony co-produces the album with Pam, although she only plays tambourine on one track (‘Applejack’), as there is no room for drums on the record.  Two of the songs Wild Rose recorded are given a new lease of life, namely ‘Home Sweet Highway’, which was one of the group’s better songs, and ‘Hit The Highway’.  I’m not a big fan of repeating songs previously recorded by the same artist, but reviving two songs after 20 years, on an album with 14 tracks is not unacceptable.  Another song, ‘Wrong Wrong Wrong’, was apparently recorded by the group but never released; it’s a catchy, medium-up-tempo number with a funky feel, which would have suited the Wild Rose vibe.

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