My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ralph Mooney

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Mirriam’

Though you’d never know it from the title, 1977’s Mirriam is a collection of inspirational and religious-themed tunes, all composed by Jessi Colter. Her chart success had tapered off since the high point she’d reached two years earlier with “I’m Not Lisa”, but but thanks to the success of 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws, she had gotten back on the radio with “Suspicious Minds”, a duet with Waylon Jennings that had reached #2. It seems odd, therefore, that Capitol would follow up that success with a religious album which was bound to have more limited commercial appeal.

Like Jessi’s earlier Capitol albums, Mirriam (a title chosen to honor Jessi’s birth name), was produced by Ken Mansfield. This time, however, Richie Albright stepped as co-producer, a role previously held by Waylon. Waylon does appear in the musician credits, however, both as a guitarist and as a background vocalist on “I Belong to Him”, the album’s sole and non-charting single. Roy Orbison is also credited as a background vocalist on this track. Steel guitar great Ralph Mooney is once again onboard as well.

Some of the songs are more overtly religious than others. The opening track “For Mama” is, as the title suggests, a tribute to Jessi’s mother. “Put Your Arms Around Me” and “I Belong To Him” could be taken as either love songs or prayers, while others such as “God, If I Could Only Write Your Love Song” and “New Wine” are unquestionably spiritual. “There Ain’t No Rain” is a rollicking gospel number complete with a choir and is one of the album’s standout tracks, but I think “I Belong To Him” is probably my favorite.

Mirriam wasn’t as well received critically or commercially as Jessi’s earlier work, but it provides an interesting look at the more devotional side of country music’s premier female outlaw. While nothing here reaches the level of greatness, it’s an album that grows on the listener with repeated playings. It is available on a two-disc collection along with Jessi’s two subsequent albums That’s The Way A Cowboy Rocks and Rolls and Ridin’ Shotgun.

Grade: B

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean’

51VGuWwwc+L._SS280-21973’s Lonesome, On’ry and Mean was a pivotal album in the career of Waylon Jennings. It was his first release after gaining some significant creative control over his music, following some hard-fought negotiations with RCA. He produced most of the album himself, but interestingly, did not write any of its songs. We begin to see the “outlaw” Waylon, beard and leather vest included, emerge for the first time. The album has a much rawer, more organic sound than was typical of the era, though it is not completely free of Nashville Sound trappings.

Three of the album’s tracks had been recorded a few years earlier and were gathering dust in the RCA vaults. “Gone To Denver” was written by Johnny Cash and Red Lane. It had been recorded in 1970 and produced by Danny Davis — a producer with whom Waylon had clashed. Davis was known for heavily orchestrated, overproduced recordings, but “Gone To Denver” is not one of them, consisting of a tasteful electric guitar track, some harmonica and a touch of pedal steel. “Lay It Down”, written by Gene Thomas and produced by Ronny Light, is an understated number featuring the legendary Ralph Mooney on steel. Waylon’s buddy Willie Nelson provided the third older cut, “Pretend I Never Happened”, which includes a Nashville Sound-style chorus. It was released as a single and reached #6.

Waylon produced the rest of the album himself. “You Can Have Her” was the album’s other single, which reached #7. It too, has a Nashville Sound-style chorus and some strings. Perhaps despite having mostly caved to Waylon’s demands, RCA was hedging its bets and playing it safe with the records it was releasing to radio. My favorite song on the album is the title track, which I had always thought was released as a single, but apparently it was not. Mickey Newbury’s “San Francisco Mabel Joy” is a real gem. Waylon’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee”, written by his pal Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, is a by-the-numbers reading of the song — certainly not bad, but not particularly memorable.

“Me and Bobby McGee” closes out the original album. The 2003 CD re-release includes three bonus tracks. I could have done without the Tex-Mex flavored “The Last One To Leave Seattle”, a Waylon co-write with Steve Norman, but I enjoyed “Laid Back Country Picker” and his cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Big, Big Love” is excellent.

The Outlaw movement wouldn’t officially get underway for a couple of more years, but the seeds were clearly sown with this collection, which is well worth checking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’

ladies love outlawsMany of Waylon’s early albums have been made available during the digital. For some reason one of my very favorite albums, Ladies Love Outlaws, has never been made available except as an mp3. There is a CD available bearing this title but it is not this album, instead being a sampler album of miscellaneous tracks.

Released in September 1972, the album reached #11 on Bilboard’s country album charts despite being relatively bereft of single releases, with only a cover of an old Buck Owens hit “Under Your Spell Again” with wife Jessi Colter being released as a single (it reached #39) .

In his autobiography Waylon says that RCA released the album without his consent and he regarded most of the tracks as being little more than demos or ‘scratch’ tracks. That may be true, but Waylon’s demos are superior to 90% of what I hear on the radio these days.

The album opens with the title track, written by Lee Clayton, which was never issued as a single by Waylon, although the song received considerable airplay in my area. Jimmy Rabbitt & The Renegades had a marginally successful single with the song in 1980. Waylon and Jessi are mentioned in one of the verses of the song.

Jessi liked Cadillacs and diamonds on her hands
Waymore had a reputation as a lady’s man
Then one night, her light of love finally gave a sign
Jessi parked her Cadillac and got herself in line

‘Cause ladies love outlaws
Like babies love a bunch of stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
Outlaws touch ladies somewhere deep down in their soul

Next up is a cover of the Three Dog Night song “Never Been To Spain”. The song and arrangement fit Waylon’s voice well, but the vocal clearly is not intended as a final vocal. Hoyt Axton wrote the song.

“Sure Didn’t Take Him Long” is a Waylon Jennings composition about the rounder who stole his woman.

My long and lean and hungry looks really used to turn her on
Till she found two hundred pounds or true love muscle and bone
I made up my mind to keep what was mine, he made up my mind I was wrong
To take my Ann took a hell of a man but it sure didn’t take him too long

“Crazy Arms” is one of the great country songs, a major hit for Ray Price and a song that has been recorded by dozens of country artists. Waylon’s steel guitar player Ralph Mooney co-wrote the song and I think Waylon included the song on the album as a tribute to him.

“Revelation” is simply the best song on the album, although releasing religious songs as singles in the early 1970s was normally a career killer. Bobby Braddock wrote the song, which Joe Nichols included on an album a few years ago. Joe’s version is good but no one will ever top Waylon’s dramatic version

Somewhere in Vietnam a 19-year-old soldier walked out of a barroom
And he said “I must be seeing things, that bourbon hit me like a baseball bat”
In Belfast Ireland a little lady dropped her shovel in her garden
She raced across the yard and ask her neighbor Mrs Clancy what was that

In Memphis Tennessee a teacher raised the window closest to the river
And the children in her classroom swore they’d heard a choir singing down the street
In Washington DC a private secretary’s lips began to quiver
And the President just put aside his papers and rose quickly to his feet

I lay in a cheap motel in the arms of someone else’s woman
When a loud explosion rocked the room and turned the morning into night
I jumped out of bed and ran into the street with hardly any clothes on
As the sky lit up my heart stood still and I could feel my face was turnin’ white

All at once the clouds rolled back and there stood Jesus Christ in all his glory
And I realized the saddest eyes I’d ever seen were lookin’ straight at me
I guess I was awakened by the penetrating sounds of my own screamin’
And it didn’t take me long to stumble out of bed and fall down on my knees
As tears rolled down my face I cried dear God I’m thankful I was only dreamin’
And if I never go to hell, Lord, it’ll be because you scared it out of me

Larry Collins and Alex Harvey wrote “Delta Dawn”, which was Tanya Tucker’s debut single in 1972, and was an international pop hit for Helen Reddy in 1973. Because of those two versions, listeners tend to think of the song as a ‘female’ song but Waylon sings it well with the right amount of empathy in his vocals.

“Frisco Depot was a Mickey Newbury song that Waylons tackles with aplomb. The song is a slow ballad with steel guitar and acoustic guitar dominating the mix

“Thanks”, co-written by Irish folk singer Phil Coulter and Scottish folk singer Bill Martin, is a quiet folk song, or perhaps a song of praise for one of life’s more important treasures:

Sunday morning in the valley we would gather for the service
Emily Jane would run to meet me, she’d smile at papa kinda nervous
All the people came from miles around, I can still hear the sound
As they sang thanks to the Lord for the sun up in the sky
For the corn that’s growing high and for the child that didn’t die
Thanks to the Lord for the crops and for the farm
For the strength in my right arm and for keepin’ us from harm
Thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, to the Lord for a girl like Emily Jane

“I Think It’s Time She Learned” is credited to Waylon Jennings and Mirriam Eddy (aka Jessi Colter). The song features a nice steel guitar introduction by Ralph Mooney, and is a song about a man leaving a woman who never returned his love for her.

How many times must I tell her
How many times must I say
I won’t be around to pick her up again
From now on she’ll have to find her own way.

How many years have I loved her
While she stood by so unconcerned
But the things she don’t know I’ll teach her when I go
She’s been wrong and I think it’s time she learned.

The album closed with the Buck Owens-Dusty Rhodes classic “Under Your Spell Again”, performed as a duet with wife Jessi Colter.

“Never Been To Spain” is the weakest track on the album mostly because of the rough vocals, and even it isn’t a bad track.

I’m calling this an A- because there are little finishing touches that could have greatly improved the album.

A look back at 1989: Part 2 – Buck Owens

Buck Owens with Dwight YoakamThe year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt were the biggest names to emerge in 1989, but there were others as well.

This is not to say that the old guard didn’t produce some excellent records that year, even if they were having difficulty getting playing time. Among these was the Baron of Bakersfield, Buck Owens .
Unlike George Jones, whose 1989 album was but one of a dozen or more albums to follow, Buck Owens 1989 effort ACT NATURALLY, was the penultimate effort by the #1 country artist of the 1960s. Although Buck’s recording career essentially ended at the end of the 1970, there was a three album coda to his career.

Late in the decade, Dwight Yoakam dredged Buck out of retirement to perform a duet on “Streets of Bakerfield”. Following the success of that recording, Capitol inked Buck to a new deal which was to see three albums released. The three albums were 1988’s HOT DOG, this album, and 1991’s KICKIN’ IN. None of the albums sold especially well, but this album featured a return to the top thirty singles chart in “Act Naturally”.

In 1963, “Act Naturally” was the first number one record of Buck’s career spending four weeks atop the country charts. Not only did the song jumpstart Buck’s career, but Buck’s recording caught the attention of the Beatles, who had Ringo Starr record the song. In the USA, Capitol released the song as the B side of “Yesterday”.

Apparently Buck and the various members of the Beatles (especially Ringo) had established rapport over the years, so the two of them got together to record the song as a duet and shoot a video.

The rest of the album was comprised of remakes of some of Buck’s older classics, some songs Buck had written since retiring at the end of the 1970s and one cover. One of the highlights on the album was a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Crying Time”. Although Buck had not released the song as a single, Ray Charles more than made up for the omission with his recording.

In addition to the aforementioned “Crying Time ” and “Act Naturally” Buck reprised his older classics “Gonna Have Love” (#76 in 1989) , and “Take Me Back Again” . Newer Owens tunes were “Tijuana Lady”, “Out Chasing Rainbows”, “Rock Hard Love”, “I Was There” and “Brooklyn Bridge”. Since none of these newer songs were released as singles, not many had the opportunity to hear them. I think “Tijuana Lady”, “Brooklyn Bridge” or “Rock Hard Love” would have made decent singles. My favorite of the newer songs is “Out There Chasing Rainbows” which other than the rhythm section, comes closest to the 1960s sound (meaning it would never have made it as a single)

I’m always out there chasing rainbows always going for the gold
Searching for you in far off places yes I’m always out there chasing rainbows

` Your memory makes me think of rainbows of summer days and daffodils
Of tender times and sweet surrender I loved you then and always will
I’m always out there…

The one cover song was of the old Wynn Stewart classic “Playboy”, it was a great song in Wynn’s hands and Buck does the song justice.

Other than latter day Buckaroos Jim Shaw (keyboards) and Doyle Curtsinger (bass), the musicians on this album are Nashville session men. This means that the album does not sound like one of the classic Buck Owens & The Buckaroos albums of the 1960s, but it doesn’t really sound like the typical late 1980s production either as no strings or synthesizers appear plus some real old school musicians such as Ralph Mooney (steel) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) appear on some of the tracks.

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Branded Man’

Merle Haggard released two albums in 1967, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive in March and Branded Man in August. Both were produced by Ken Nelson and appear to have been recorded concurrently at Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood. Like his previous two LPs, the 1967 offerings broke with the day’s usual practice of building albums around one or two hit singles and cover versions of recent hits by other popular artists. Instead, Haggard’s albums consist primarily of original material written by the artist himself, occasionally co-written with Bonnie Owens, and a few select entries from other well-known songwriters including Tommy Collins, Hank Cochran and Liz and Casey Anderson.

The Andersons penned “The Fugitive” (also known as “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”), which had been released the previous December. It is noteworthy not only because it became Haggard’s first #1 hit, but also because it was his first convict record, a theme he would revisit many times over the next 40 years. Inspired by the popular television series “The Fugitive” doesn’t reveal whether the antagonist is guilty or wrongly accused, which contrasts with Haggard’s later prison songs, in which the narrator is usually guilty and remorseful. The version on the current CD is an alternate take but isn’t significantly different from the better-known hit version. Initially reluctant to discuss his past transgressions, Merle was persuaded by Johnny Cash to face the issue head on rather than giving the tabloids the opportunity to do so. “Life In Prison”, in which the protagonist concludes that a life sentence is perhaps worse than execution, is perhaps his earliest self-penned effort about life behind bars. Although “The Fugitive” was the only single released from this set, many of the album’s other cuts were possible contenders. “Someone Told My Story”, with Bonnie Owens’ prominent and familiar harmony vocals, is a particular favorite of mine, as is “My House of Memories.” There are two covers on the album — a remake of his own “Skid Row” which had been his Tally Records debut a few years earlier, and Jimmie Rodgers “My Rough and Rowdy Ways”, which is only one of three tracks on the album in which Merle did not have a hand in writing (the other two are “Mary’s Mine” and the title track. The original album closed with the spirited “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart”, which Merle wrote with Tommy Collins. The Buck Owens influence is readily apparent on this track. The current 2-for-1 release includes two bonus tracks: alternate tracks of “Life In Prison” and “Someone Told My Story”, which while nice to have, don’t add much value to the collection.

Branded Man, released five months after I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, is a stronger set than its predecessor. This time around Merle relied a little more on outside songwriters, with Tommy Collins contributing three entries, and co-writing a fourth with Merle. The great Hank Cochran wrote “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. But the highlights of this album are the two singles, both penned by Haggard. “I Threw Away The Rose”, which was perhaps inspired by the 1962 film The Days Of Wine And Roses, was Merle’s follow-up hit to “The Fugitive”. Peaking at #2 in Billboard, it just missed becoming his second #1 hit. Instead, that honor went to the next single, the album’s title track, which topped the chart in September 1967. The semi-autobiographical number deals with an ex-convict’s unsuccessful attempts to wipe the slate clean and get on with his life.

Though it was never released as a single, “Somewhere Between”, co-written with Bonnie Owens, is a well-known album cut that has been covered many times by artists such as Suzy Bogguss and Keith Whitley, and is on my short list of favorite Haggard tunes. Tommy Collins’ “Don’t Get Married” is the best of the non-Haggard penned tunes, but Merle’s cover of the classic “Long Black Limousine” is surprisingly pedestrian and the weakest cut on the album. The album closes with two bonus tracks: alternate versions of “I Threw Away The Rose” and “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. Both are quite different from the better-known versions. They sound as though they were recorded live in the studio, and I suspect that both are previously unreleased Tally recordings.

Because neither album was recorded in Nashville, many of the usual names are absent from the session musician credits, although the great Ralph Mooney plays steel guitar on both albums. Glen D. Hardin, who would later become well known through his association with Emmylou Harris, plays piano. Oh yeah, and some guy named Glen Campbell plays guitar.

This 2-for-1 release, available on CD and as a digital download, is excellent value and well worth adding to your collection.

Grades:

I’m A Lonesome Fugitive: A-
Branded Man: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

Haggard’s debut single was a cover of Bakersfield star Wynn Stewart’s ‘Sing A Sad Song’ which was released on independent West Coast label Tally. Although it crept into the top 20 on Billboard, Merle sounds as if he is trying too hard to copy Stewart vocally, breaking into an uncomfortable falsetto, and there is a very heavy handed string arrangement.

He followed that up with a song penned by another Bakersfield boy, Tommy Collins’s perky novelty story song ‘Sam Hill’, which is certainly memorable, but now sounds very dated, particularly the backing vocals, and it performed less well than its predecessor. On the flip side was the pained ballad ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’, which Haggard wrote with fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson. This is an excellent song, addressed to although the string section is overdone again.

The third and last single for Tally, the rueful ‘(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’, was the one which really kickstarted his career. The first of many genuine classics Haggard was to make hits, it is unusual in that it was not one of his own songs, but was written by fellow Californian Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn), to whom he had been introduced by Bonnie Owens. A Bakersfield bar room take on lost love, it was his first top 10 hit single and gave him the name of his backing band, the Strangers. Even though a competing version by the more established Roy Drusky may have cut into sales, it was a big enough success that it persuaded major label Capitol to buy out his Tally contract. Six Tally sides were packaged with newly recorded material in the same vein, produced by Ken Nelson, for Haggard’s debut album in 1965.

The malicious ‘I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can’ (a Haggard original) was his first single actually released on Capitol, although it failed to break into the top 40 on Billboard. It is an energetic, personality-infused response to “get even with womankind” by breaking the hearts of every girl he meets.

Typically, country albums in the 60s featured one or two singles, a lot of filler, and covers of other artists’ hits. Haggard was much more album-oriented, even at this early stage, writing five of the album’s dozen tracks, and there are other songs which could have been hit singles given the exposure.

I really like ‘Please Mr DJ’, a disconsolate plea for the radio to play a specific song for “someone who broke my heart today”. ‘If I Had Left It Up To You’ is another very good song with the protagonist regretting his earlier fighting for a doomed relationship, as if he had not done so,

It’d all be over now except the crying
I’d be used to spending all my nights alone

A couple of tracks are still filler, with overdone string-laden productions. The heartbreak ballad ‘You Don’t Even Try’ was written with Haggard’s friend (and Bonnie Owens’s then boyfriend) Fuzzy Owen, co-owner of Tally, while steel guitarist Ralph Mooney’s romantic and sophisticated sounding ‘Falling For You’ is not a patch on ‘Crazy Arms’.

A cover of Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is taken at a disconcertingly brisk, almost cheerful pace, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the set are rather better versions of another fine Liz Anderson song, the depressed ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’, and Jenny Lou Carson’s sad but pretty sounding lament for lost love ‘I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows’.

The West Coast based Academy of Country Music recognized this bright new star by naming him Best New Male Vocalist for 1965 and also gave him the Best Vocal Duo award for his duet album with Bonnie Owens. A year later he had advanced to the title of Best Male Vocalist. Haggard was definitely on the right track with his debut, but had not quite found his distinctive voice yet.

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Country Heritage Redux: Wynn Stewart (1934-1985)

An updated version of an article originally published by The 9513:

Mention Bakersfield to a country music fan and the names Buck Owens and Merle Haggard immediately come to mind. That’s to be expected considering Buck and the Hag were the two most successful practitioners of the “Bakersfield Sound,” but there are several other artists just as important to the evolution of the sound. Chief among these is Wynn Stewart, a hard-core honky-tonk singer who arrived at a time when Nashville was distancing itself from the hard-core sounds.

Country music rapidly lost its audience after the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956. In order to retain viability in the marketplace, Nashville producers attempted to broaden the appeal of the music by adding strings and background voices. As time went by, the background voices became choruses, the strings became entire string sections and (worst of all) fiddle and steel guitar became noticeably absent in the recordings of the likes of Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Plus, the vocals themselves often became bland.

Wynn Stewart arrived in 1954 with his hard-core sound and distinctive tenor and phrasing, recording for a minor label out in California. He signed to major label Capitol in 1956 and had one hit, “Waltz of the Angels,” which reached #14, but he was unable to duplicate that success and was soon released.

He then signed to Jackpot / Challenge Records in 1958 where, after dabbling with a few rock and roll songs on the Jackpot label, he recorded a number of classic country songs, including “Wishful Thinking,” which hit #5 (Ralph Mooney on steel and Gordon Terry on fiddle), “Big Big Big Love (#18) and several duets with Jan Howard, including “Wrong Company” (#26). These records featured fiddle and steel guitar in a way that Nashville recordings of that era wouldn’t touch. My personal favorite of Stewart’s songs, “Playboy,” was recorded during this period. As was often the case for Stewart, some of his strongest material did not chart – this song being one of those cases.

While Stewart was signed to Challenge, one of his songs, “Above and Beyond,” was recorded by Buck Owens who took it to #3 in early 1960 (Buck’s second big hit). Years later Rodney Crowell finally got the song to #1. Before Buck formed the Buckaroos, you could clearly hear the Wynn Stewart influence in his vocals and sound.

In late 1963, Stewart’s bass player, a young ex-con named Merle Haggard, asked for his permission to record “Sing A Sad Song.” Always willing to help a fellow artist, Wynn gave the song to Merle who had his first chart record with the song (it reached #19).

Stewart re-signed with Capitol Records in 1964 but had little success until 1967, when his fifth single for the label, “It’s Such A Pretty World Today,” topped the charts. The recording found the classic Wynn Stewart sound softened with vocal choruses and string accompaniment. Three more top tens (“‘Cause I Have You,” “Love’s Gonna Happen To Me” and “Something Pretty”) followed, but the hits became smaller and smaller and after 1971 Stewart was dropped by Capitol. A stint with RCA produced no hits, although he did score one more top ten with “After The Storm” in 1976 on the Playboy label where he returned to his hard-core sound. Stewart’s last top 20 hit came in 1977 with “Sing A Sad Song,” which, ironically, was the song that launched Merle Haggard’s career; it too, got to #19.

Stewart formed his own label, Pretty World Records, named for his biggest hit, and seemed to be ready to get his career back into high gear when he was felled by a heart attack on July 17, 1985.

Both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard have cited Wynn Stewart as a major influence on their careers, yet somehow, he was never able to translate his enormous talent into extended and consistent success for himself. Possible reasons are several:

1. Poor timing. He was a hard country artist at a time when Nashville was going soft and attempting to co-opt the easy listening market.
2. A lack of self-discipline and some bouts with the bottle.
3. Lack of visual appeal. Like Haggard, Wynn Stewart was short in stature, probably shorter than Haggard. Unlike Haggard, who was very handsome and photogenic in his younger days, Wynn Stewart was just another guy, and not very photogenic (his daughters are all quite pretty, however.)

Wynn Stewart inspired tremendous loyalty among his fellow musicians and artists. For years after his death, legendary steel guitar player Ralph Mooney would identify himself as “Wynn Stewart’s steel player.” Roy Nichols, Haggard’s long-time guitar player, played for Wynn Stewart, and before that, for Lefty Frizzell. Roy regarded Stewart as a giant of the music.

Affordable CD collections of Wynn’s material are few. The crown jewel, of course, is Wishful Thinking, a massive ten CD box set. This set covers 279 recordings, from all labels, and is the only place to find all of Wynn’s Capitol hits. This set lists for $299 but can be found for less money if you look around.

Other than the Bear Box Set, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available only two other Wynn Stewart collections. There is a Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 CD issued by Varese Sarabande available covering his years with Challenge Records. While this collection of nineteen songs misses his big hits on Capitol, it does include what I feel to be his best recordings: hard-core honky-tonk classics. Varese Sarabande also issued The Very Best of Wynn Stewart and Jan Howard which features eight Jan Howard songs from the Challenge years, six Wynn Stewart songs and the four duets they did together. Both of the Varese Sarabande sets are highly recommended.

http://www.collectorschoicemusic.com has available all three of the above titles plus Wynn Stewart- Greatest Country Hits. There is finally a CD available that contains some of Wynn’s recordings on Capitol. Titled Wynn Stewart – Greatest Country Hits, the CD, issued by Micro Werks (out of Los Angeles) contains his 13 biggest hits. The music is excellent, although I was hoping for a more comprehensive set (such as the other three Capitol singles to chart, plus some key album tracks), but at least it’s out there.

It’s out of print now, but in 1995 AVI released Wynn Stewart – The Best of The Challenge Years. This set contains sixteen of the nineteen songs on the Varese set plus an additional thirteen songs. With some effort, you may be able to find this CD.

Stewart’s daughter, Wren Stewart Tidwell, runs a very informative website and has some of Stewart’s vinyl LPs for sale. While I have hopes that someday Capitol / EMI comes to its senses and releases some of the songs on CD, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. The LPs are all worth owning and I’ve been buying them whenever I can find them. The official Wynn Stewart website is at http://www.wynnstewart.com

He recorded at least 58 of the 45 rpm singles–of which 31 charted. Used record stores may carry some of these records. Another place to search is http://www.musicstack.com . Happy hunting!

There is also available a tribute album available, recorded by Billy Keeble. This CD features 15 of Billy’s favorite Wynn Stewart songs, including a duet with Wren Stewart Tidwell on one of the selections. Billy isn’t Wynn Stewart, but his CD shows the breadth of the Wynn Stewart repertoire. This disc is available from CD Baby or from http://www.billykeeble.com.

Interestingly enough, Wynn experienced a bit of an upsurge in 2010 when Volkswagen used his 1962 recording of “Another Day, Another Dollar” in a commercial for the VW Jetta. This song can be found on the Bear Box Set and on the Varese Sarabande Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 collection. While the song was not a giant hit (#18 Cashbox /#27 on Billboard), it is fondly remembered by those of us who recall hearing it the first time around.

Classic Rewind: RIP Ralph Mooney

Ralph Mooney, who died on Sunday, was one of the most distinctive steel guitar players ever in country music. His work for Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard helped to form the Bakersfield Sound, and his later years backing Waylon Jennings helped to keep the Outlaws rooted in country tradition. He wrote the classic ‘Crazy Arms’, and just last year Marty Stuart showcased Mooney’s playing on an instrumental version of the song on his aclaimed Ghost Train.

For a nice tribute to him, read this. For a musical tribute, listen to this song from independent artist Shane Worley.

Here he is backing up Waylon on a cover of Haggard’s classic ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’:

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions’

After exploring the various aspects of American roots music, including southern gospel, delta blues, bluegrass, and a concept album exploring the plight of Native Americans, Marty Stuart is back with Ghost Train, his most mainstream album in years. This time around he’s offering unadulterated traditional country music with a generous helping of rockabilly and a touch of bluegrass. Stuart chose to record the self-produced project in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, where many timeless classics were captured on tape, and where Stuart himself took part in his first recording session at age 13 when he was playing mandolin for Lester Flatt. Those expecting a retro-sounding album are in for a surprise; Stuart has successfully accomplished his goal of “writing a new chapter” in traditional country music, and produced an album that is unquestionably traditional, yet sounds fresh and contemporary rather than a nostalgic tribute to days gone by.

The opening track and lead single, “Branded” is one of eleven tracks on the album in which Marty had a hand in writing. It has drawn comparisons to Merle Haggard, and the lyrics do bring to mind such classics as “Branded Man” and “The Fugitive”, but the arrangement and production are solidly in the vein of Stuart’s own classics such as “Hillbilly Rock” and “Tempted.” In a sane and rational world, “Branded” would be in heavy rotation at country radio stations from coast to coast. “Country Boy Rock and Roll”, as the title suggests, delves further into rockabilly territory. Though Stuart is in fine vocal form, it is his guitar picking and that of Kenny Vaughan, a member of Stuart’s band The Fabulous Superlatives, that compels the listener to stop and take notice. The lack of this kind of picking is what has contributed to the blandness of most of today’s country music.

The three finest songs on the album are “Drifting Apart”, “A World Without You” and “I Run To You”, all of which Stuart co-wrote with his wife Connie Smith. Not to be confused with the recent Lady Antebellum hit of the same title, “I Run To You”, the best song on the album, is a declaration of undying love that is beautifully sung by Stuart and Smith. The tasteful production is enhanced by a prominent steel guitar and an understated string section.

“Hangman” is a somber affair of self-examination and soul-searching by an executioner trying to come to terms with the unpleasantries of his grim profession. Though too dark and brooding for country radio’s tastes, the song will be remembered as one of the last, if not the last, written by Johnny Cash. Cash penned the tune with Stuart a mere four days before The Man In Black died.

Stuart draws on personal experience with “Hard Working Man”, which tells the tale of Marty’s father who was relieved of his duties as a factory worker after many years of service. Very much in the vein of songs written by both Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson, it is eerily relevant in today’s economic climate:

What will become of the working man
With honest sweat on his brow?
Is the nation that raised him to build it
Gonna turn its back on him now?
Take away his pride and dignity,
Give his job to some foreign land?
Here’s a question that needs a straight answer:
What will become of the hard working man?

Ghost Train also pays homage to the past by reviving the once common practice of including a few instrumental tracks on the album. The most noteworthy of the three instrumentals is “Crazy Arms”, which is performed by its composer, the legendary steel guitar virtuoso Ralph Mooney, who also plays steel on several other of the album’s tracks.

Following “Crazy Arms” is “Porter Wagoner’s Grave”, which tells the story of a lost soul who is saved after an encounter in a cemetery with the late country legend’s spirit. And just when it appears that the album is winding down, the pace picks up again with “Little Heartbreaker (The Likes Of You)”, a co-write with Ralph Mooney, that like “Branded”, is reminiscent of Stuart’s hit-making days. The instrumental bluegrass number “Mississippi Railroad Blues” closes the album, and allows Stuart to showcase his mastery of the mandolin.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an album this much, but suffice it to say, it’s been a long time. If you’re only going to buy one country album this year, make it this one. My feelings about this collection can be summed up in two words: More, please.

Grade: A+


Ghost Train
is widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.