My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Red Lane

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Songs of Pride, Charley That Is’

Songs of Pride, Charley That Is was Charley Pride’s second LP of 1968. Boasting no fewer than four producers — Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson, and Felton Jarvis — it featured his highest charting hit to date, the #2 peaking hit “The Easy Part’s Over”, which was written by Jerry Foster and Bill Rice.

There weren’t any other singles released from the collection, but there were a few that could have been worthy contenders. Among them was “She Made Me Go”, another Foster-Rice composition, which casts Charley in the role of a spurned spouse is assumed to be the party at fault for the breakup of his marriage. “The Right To Do Wrong” written by Fred Foster, the legendary founder of Monument Records, is another that could have been commercially successful on its own. My personal favorite is the upbeat “I Could Have Saved You The Time”, written by Jack Clement.

The album’s second half is equally strong, with a number of steel-drenched songs that won me over immediately, from Red Lane’s “Both of Us Love You” and Vincent Matthews’ “One Of These Days” (not the same song as Emmylou Harris’ 1976 hit). The Mel Tillis and Wayne Walker number “All The Time” is a bit schmaltzy, and the album opener “Someday You Will” (another Jerry Foster/Bill Rice effort) is a bit pedestrian but those are the album’s only two week links. The production is firmly traditional, with plenty of pedal steel and it is not as dependent on vocal choruses as many other recordings of the day.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Especially For You’

Don’s eleventh album, released in June 1981, continued Don’s string of successful albums, reaching #5, his ninth (of eleven) albums to reach the top ten. Three singles were released from the album, all of which made the top ten: “Miracles” (#4 Billboard/ #1 Cashbox ), the exquisite duet with Emmylou Harris “If I Needed You” (#3 Billboard/ #1 Record World) and “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (#1 across the board).

The instrumentation on this album is a bit unusual for a country album of this vintage as a variety of odd instruments appear including such things as bongos, congas, ukulele, shaker and tambourine. Fortunately only the second and ninth tracks feature synthesizer, and Lloyd Green is present on steel guitar to restore order on five of the tracks. Unlike Don’s earlier albums, dobro (or resonator guitar) does not show up in the mix at all, and I definitely miss its presence.

The album opens up with a tune from “The Man In Black” (Johnny Cash) in “Fair-weather Friends”. This is a religiously oriented track, but a nice song

Fair-weather friends, fair-weather sailors
Will leave you stranded on life’s shore
One good friend who truly loves you
Is worth the pain your heart endures

We never know which way the wind will blow
Nor when or where the next turmoil will be
But He’s a solid rock when troubles grow
And He’s holding out a saving hand for me

“I Don’t Want to Love You” comes from the pen of Bob McDill. Bob never did anyone wrong with a song and this song about the human dilemma is no exception

I think about you every minute
And I miss you when you’re not around
And every day, I’m gettin’ deeper in it
I’m scared to go on, but the feelin’s so strong
I can’t turn away from you now

No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
And oh, oh, oh, I’m tryin’ not to
No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
But oh, oh, oh, I think I do

“Years from Now” by Roger Cook and Charles Cochran is a tender ballad with no potential as a single

Still love has kept us together
For the flame never dies
When I look in your eyes
The future I see

Holding you years from now
Wanting you years from now
Loving you years from now
As I love you tonight

Dave Hanner was a familiar figure in the country music as a writer and performer (Corbin/Hanner). His songs have been recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis and the Cates Sisters but the capstone of his writing career is the classic “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”, a chart topper for Don and recorded many times since then including nice versions by Lee Ann Womack and Anne Murray. Don had Corbin/Hanner for his opening act on one tour. Taken at mid-tempo, this is one of the songs that come to mind when Don’s name is mentioned.

Lord, I hope this day is good
I’m feelin’ empty and misunderstood
I should be thankful Lord, I know I should
But Lord, I hope this day is good

Lord, have you forgotten me
I’ve been prayin’ to you faithfully
I’m not sayin’ I’m a righteous man
But Lord, I hope you understand

I don’t need fortune and I don’t need fame
Send down the thunder Lord, send down the rain
But when you’re planning just how it will be
Plan a good day for me

“Especially You”, written by Rick Beresford has an artsy feel to it and has that “Nashville Sound” combination of strings and steel. I think that this song would have made a decent single

I see the rainbow in your eyes,
I see all the colors pass me by
I sure like the things my eyes can do,
Especially when they see you.

I hear the music of this day,
I sure like the songs this world can play
But most of all I like your tune,
When you whisper I love you.

My senses don’t like, I get a definite high
When you’re near I feel clear off the ground
Reach for my arms, and I will give you the stars
There is nothing that is holding us down.

Townes Van Zandt was the source of “If I Needed You”, Don’s successful duet with Emmylou Harris. I am not that much of a fan of Emmylou’s solo endeavors, but she can seemingly blend with anyone. Pair her with a good singer like Don Williams, and the end result is outstanding. I think that this is my favorite Townes Van Zandt composition:

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me, for to ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I would swim the sea for to ease your pain

Well the night’s forlorn and the mornin’s warm
And the mornin’s warm with the lights of love
And you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes
And that would break my heart in two

“Now and Then” (Wayland Holyfield) and “Smooth Talking Baby” (David Kirby, Red Lane) are acceptable album filler, but nothing more.

“I’ve Got You to Thank for That” by Blake Mevis and Don Pfrimmer is an upbeat mid-tempo love song song that grows on you over time. Blake Mevis had considerable success as a songwriter but may be best remembered as the producer of George Strait’s early albums.

I’ve got Sunday school to thank for Jesus
Got educated thanks to mom and dad
I can borrow money thanks to banker Johnson
Thanks to me I’ve spent all that I have.

I quit smoking thanks to coach Kowalsky
Thanks to lefty Thomson I can fight
It took a while learning all life’s lessons,
But I learnt about love just one night.

Honey I’ve got you to thank for that
It’s good from time to time to look back
It always reminds me that I love it where I am at
Honey I’ve got you to thank for that

The album closes with the first single released from the album “Miracles”. Written by Roger Cook, the song is yet another slow ballad. In the hands of anyone other than Don Williams, the song would seem turgid, but Don sells the song effectively. The use of strings with steel enhances the dramatic presentation

Miracles, miracles, that’s what life’s about
Most of you must agree if you’ve thought it out

I can see and I can hear, I can tell you why
I can think and I can feel, I can even cry
I can walk, I can run, I can swim the sea
We had made a baby son and he looks like me

I don’t think Don Williams is capable of issuing a bad album. It appears that Especially For You was only briefly available on CD (I’ve been reviewing from a vinyl copy), but is currently unavailable.

I prefer the more acoustic sound of Don’s earlier albums, but this is a good album that I would give a B+. Did I mention that I really missed that dobro?

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘My Man’

my-manTammy’s second release of 1972 produced two chart topping singles – three, if you count ‘Good Lovin’ (Makes It Right)’, which was a #1 single the previous year, but was originally released to promote Tammy’s Greatest Hits Volume II rather than this album.

The title track, ‘My Man (Understands)’ is not one of my favorite Tammy Wynette songs, a mid tempo love song which is just not terribly interesting and is given a brassy production. The second song has held up much better over time. ‘Til I Get It Right’ is a beautiful ballad written by Red Lane and Larry Henley with an inspiring message about facing a disastrous love life with optimism.

‘Walk Softly On The Bridges’ is an excellent song written by the legendary Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle” Owens. It was a hit single for Mel Street the following year, and has been covered a number of times, but Tammy’s subtly emotional version was the first and arguably the best, as she offers advice to a friend tempted to cheat:

Don’t be careless with your darling
If you love him, don’t let him down
If you’re faithful he won’t leave you
Lost and wasted the way I am

Walk softly on the bridges that you’re crossing
Don’t break his heart then cry cause it won’t mend
Be careful not to slam the door behind you
You may need to knock upon his door again

She covered a recent hit for her husband George Jones, ‘Loving You Could Never Be Better’, a nice love song which works well for Tammy who gives it a hushed sensual reading. Maybe they should have cut the song as a duet. Donna Fargo’s breakthrough hit ‘The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA’ has aged distinctly less well, although Tammy sings it with enthusiasm.

Tammy wrote the subdued ballad ‘Things I Love To Do’ with Earl Montgomery, about a happy housewife . She sings it beautifully, but the song does not go anywhere. She also co-wrote the brassier ‘Hold On (To The Love I Got)’, another piece of filler.

She is more assertive telling her man ‘You Can’t Hang On’ if he isn’t going to give her enough loving; or that if he cheats on her she’ll be ‘Gone With Another Man’.

‘The Bridge Of Love’ (written by Jae J Kay) has a folky nursery rhyme quality, and combines a progressive message about a multiracial America with a sense of impending failure, which is a bit of a departure for Tammy:

Watch the happy children go round and round
Some are black, some are brown
The bridge is strong but when things go wrong
It’s down, down, down

Hear the little children singin’ their song
Everything’s right and they belong
All the little children are gonna be sad
When the bridge falls down, no mom, no dad

When the bridge of love starts fallin’ down
Fallin’ down, fallin’ down
The bridge is strong but when things go wrong
It’s down, down, down

One hand a-reachin’ out to another
Makes a bridge of love – will you be my brother?…
Look at our country, what do you see
The bridge of all colors standing free
The bridge is strong but when hearts go wrong
It’s down, down, down

There may be a few too many upbeat filler tunes, but there is some excellent material as well, and this is worth seeking out. It is available on a 2-4-1 deal with Bedtime Stories.

Grade: B

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Tradition Lives’

81s3+w6kLmL._SX522_It’s been more than six years since Mark Chesnutt’s last full-length album and more than eight since his last collection of original material. His latest effort, Tradition Lives, which became available last week, reportedly took about three years to record. The long drawn-out process of producing new music has apparently paid off, resulting in the strongest album of Chesnutt’s post-major label career.

The title is self-explanatory. The biggest hit of Chesnutt’s career was his cover of Aerosmith’s pop ballad “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing”, but that song was not typical of his music and it ultimately resulted in his departure from MCA Records. He had been reluctant to record the song and flat out refused to comply when the label wanted more of the same. After leaving MCA, he recorded one album for Columbia and has been releasing music on a variety of independent labels since 2004.

Although Mark has remained true to his roots, he hasn’t always had access to great material as an indie artist. That is decidedly not the case with this album. The current single “Oughta Miss Me By Now” is a bit of a dud but the remaining twelve tracks are all top notch. None of them sound like anything that is currently on country radio today; they sound very much like the songs Mark sang in his commercial heyday. They are traditional but not dated and the material sounds fresh.

Fiddle and steel are plentiful throughout the album. There are quite a few uptempo honky-tonkers from the opening track “I’ve Got a Quarter In My Pocket”, “Neither Did I” and “Never Been To Texas”, but the ballads are the tracks that really shine. I particularly liked “Is It Still Cheating”, a Randy Houser/Jamey Johnson/Jerrod Niemann song in which the protagonist knows his wife is cheating on him but doesn’t care because it gives him time to pursue his own extramarital affair. I can’t decide if I like this one or “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” better. The latter was written by newcomer William Michael Morgan and Chesnutt’s producer Jimmy Ritchey. In the aftermath of a broken marriage, the protagonist confronts the cause of the breakup — which at first appears to be another woman, but is later revealed to be the bottle:

It’s time to go our separate ways
Been goin’ through hell from all the hell we’ve raised
There comes a day to turn the page
So tonight I’m pourin’ you out on the floor
So you can’t hurt me anymore

Both of these songs are examples of the substance that used to be a hallmark of country music, but has been sadly lacking in recent years. “What I Heard” also falls into that category. It’s another break-up tale, but in this one Chesnutt refuses to accept that it’s really over and is convinced that his soon-to-be-ex will come crawling back.

Chesnutt steps out of his comfort zone for one number: “Hot”, a jazzy number written by Don Poythress and Wynn Varble. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it’s not bad and Mark deserves credit for the creative stretch.

The album closes with an quiet number featuring only Mark’s vocal and Jimmy Ritchey on acoustic guitar. “There Won’t Be Another Now” was written by Red Lane and originally recorded by Merle Haggard. Mark’s rendition is meant to be a tribute to both recently departed legends, ending the album on a poignant note.

Tradition Lives is one the best albums I’ve heard this year; I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Out Among the Stars’

51kVTtcVzZL._SS280Out Among the Stars was Merle Haggard’s second album release of 1986. It was arguably the least successful album of his Epic years, and holds the dubious distinction of being only one of two albums from that era (the other being 1985’s live album Amber Waves of Grain) that failed to produce any Top 10 hits.

Readers who have been following our coverage this month will have noticed a shift in Merle’s sound; this phase of his career was very heavy on ballads and he’d begun to incorporate more jazz elements and instrumentation — including saxophone and horns — into his music. Out Among the Stars is largely a (temporary) reversal of that trend, for the simple reason that the majority of the tracks had been recorded several years earlier while Haggard was signed to MCA. Apparently CBS (then the parent company of Epic Records) was concerned that Merle’s former label would begin mining their vaults and releasing singles which would then be in direct competition with his current output for radio airplay. As a pre-emptive move, CBS bought the rights to several of Merle’s unreleased MCA recordings. Songs purchased from that arrangement make up the majority of the tracks on Out Among the Stars; only three tunes — the title track, “The Show’s Almost Over” and a remake of the old David Houston hit “Almost Persuaded” — were new recordings for this project.

Out Among the Stars is the product of no less than five producers, including Merle himself, and it comes as no surprise that an album comprised mostly of outtakes from recording sessions over a long period of time, is a somewhat incohesive and uneven affair. CBS’ concerns about competition from these tracks seems largely unfounded; while none of them are bad, they are in no way in the same league as Haggard’s best output, and that is likely the reason they had shelved in the first place.

The title track was the first of the album’s two singles. Written by Adam Mitchell, it was somewhat of a departure for Haggard. The production was more contemporary for the era, relying more on keyboards and vocal choruses and less on the Telecaster, fiddle and steel. The story of an angry and economically disadvantaged young man who dies during a botched robbery attempt may have been too heavy for radio; it peaked at #21, becoming one of a very few Haggard singles that did not at least crack the Top 20. The production is bit dated today, but sadly the lyrics sound as though they could have been ripped from today’s headlines. The second single fared even worse. “Almost Persuaded” had been a monster hit for David Houston twenty years earlier. Its co-writer and original producer Billy Sherrill also produced the Haggard version. Merle does a great job with the song, but the song had been recorded by many people over the years, and it seems like a strange choice for a single. However, one does have to bear in mind that during the New Traditionalist era, many old chestnuts were dusted off and presented to a new generation of fans by current artists. However, “Almost Persuaded” still has a dated countrypolitan feel to it, particularly with the strings near the end of the song. Radio didn’t embrace it and died at #58.

The rest of the album is a rather mixed bag. It’s pretty easy to pick out to identify the old MCA recordings,like “Love Keeps Hanging On”, “Why Can’t I Cry” and “Love Don’t Hurt Every Time” which have a “Red Bandana” or “My Own Kind of Hat” feel to them — particularly on the electric guitar solos. They are all pleasant to listen to but not particularly memorable. The exceptions are a Dixieland jazz version of “Pennies from Heaven”, “Bleachers” – a Haggard composition about an aging athlete ready to step out of the spotlight — and “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa”, a Red Lane composition that would later be recorded by Merle’s son Noel, and which would go on to become an almost Top 10 hit (peaking at #11) for George Strait in 2003.

The material on Out Among the Stars may not be among Merle’s best, but every Haggard album is precious, particularly in the wake of his recent death. The album has largely been forgotten so it presents a good opportunity for many fans to hear something “new” from Merle while he was still in peak vocal form.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’

51f3QpNJP2L._SS280The early 1980s were a prolific time for Merle Haggard. The beginning of the new decade saw him releasing two new albums for MCA and then fulfilling his contract for the label with a live album and a Gospel collection before signing with Epic in 1981. Then over the next two years he released two regular solo albums, a Christmas album and duet albums with both George Jones and Willie Nelson. 1983’s That’s the Way Love Goes was his third (excluding the Christmas collection) solo album for Epic and his sixth album overall for the label.

Hag co-produced the album with Ray Baker. Never one to follow trends, Haggard had avoided the era’s propensity towards overproduction. That’s the Way Love Goes is a collection of ten laid-back ballads, the type of album that would not gain any traction at radio today, if it even managed to get made at all. It wasn’t exactly in sync with the commercial tastes of its time, either; the production is tastefully understated throughout. It did however, perform quite well commercially, spawning three hit singles, two of which were chart-toppers. The album also marked the beginning a mellowing of Merle’s sound and he began experimenting with adding horns and saxophones to the mix, something that would characterize his music for the remainder of the decade.

Commercially Haggard was riding high, but he was entering an era that would be very dark for him personally, involving both marital and substance abuse problems. His rocky marriage to Leona Williams finally ended that year, and it seems to have been foreshadowed in a few of the album’s songs, particularly the bleak and introspective lead single “What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)”, a self-penned number that landed at #3. He also penned “Someday When Things Are Good” with his soon-to-be ex-wife Leona. The #1 hit finds him contemplating walking out on his marriage, but unable to find the right time to do it.

Sandwiched in between these two hits is a remake of “That’s the Way Love Goes”, a Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer composition that had been a #1hit for Johnny Rodriguez in 1973. Hag also took the tune to the top of the charts and it remains one of my favorites of his recordings from this era.

There are no uptempo songs on this album and for that reason some may find it a bit difficult to listen to all the way through. However, they are all well done and for the most part they have aged well with the possible exception of Red Lane’s “Carryin’ Fire”, which has a dated-sounding keyboard intro. “The Last Boat of the Day”, also penned by Lane with Hank Cochran has a subtle Calypso feel to it and is a bit of an artistic stretch for Merle. Beach songs were not yet a staple of mainstream country and this one stands head and shoulders over almost ever contemporary example I can think of.

Merle had a hand in writing all of the remaining songs on the album. I particularly liked “(I’m Gonna Paint Me) A Bed of Roses”, which finds him trying to make the best of things after a break-up. It has a radio-friendly feel and might have been a hit, but it was highly unusual to release more than three singles from an album in those days. “Don’t Seem Like We’ve Been Together All Our Lives” is about a long-term relationship that is still going well — decidedly at odds with Merle’s real-life situation at the time. “If You Hated Me” is possibly semi-autobiographical, a song in which he questions how bad things would have been if his wife had hated him, considering how badly she treated him when she supposedly loved him. I like this one a lot. Red Lane and Dean Holloway were the co-writers. The album closer “I Think I’ll Stay” is a bluesy number that close with an extended jam session.

Overall, That’s the Way Love Goes is very good, but it does not quite rise to the level of Big City and Going Where the Lonely Go. It is not great but it is very good and worth investigating.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Sing, Chapter 1’

81hrny-Ha0L._SX522_I always felt that Wynonna was miscast as a country singer but was otherwise a great vocal performer. This album is the proof of my latter assertion, a twelve song collection of great songs perfectly executed by a master singer.

The album opens up with a thirty’s classic “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”, a Boswell Sisters hit from the 1930s, long forgotten but well worth reviving. The Boswell Sisters pre-dated and were an inspiration for the Andrews Sister. The song sounds very Andrews-ish with Vickie Hampton and Wynonna doing harmonies to create that trio sound. There is an old-time, non-bluegrass banjo in the mix played by Ilya Toshinsky.

Next up is the greatest country song ever written, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. While there are versions I prefer to Wynonna’s, she does an excellent job with the song. The Nashville String Machine provides tasteful and effective orchestral accompaniment.

Wynonna gives the sisterhood some wise advice in the very bluesy “Women Be Wise”.

Dave Bartholomew was a noted New Orleans songwriter closely associated with the legendary Fats Domino. “I Hear You Knocking” was a big R&B hit for Smiley Lewis in 1955 (#2 R&B) and a big pop hit (#2) for actress Gale Storm. Fats Domino also recorded the song a few years later, and because of his sustained success, Fats’ version is probably the best remembered. Wynonna’s version has a more New Orleans style rock feel. It is quite good

Larry Henley and Red Lane penned “Til I Get It Right”, a major Tammy Wynette hit from 1973. The focus is on Wynonna’s vocal with spare but graceful accompaniment that includes unobtrusive strings.

Another country classic follows, Merle Haggard’s “Are The Good Times Really Over For Good”. Not one of my favorite Hag songs, but still a good song. I do like the brass instrumentation in Wynonna’s arrangement.

I was not a big Stevie Ray Vaughan fan but I could take him in small doses and Wynonna’s take on “The House is Rockin'” is just enough Stevie Ray for me. Wynonna’s take on this song rocks just enough.

The almost forgotten Bill Withers had a relatively short career as a recording artist (he is still alive) but the music he did produce was exceptional leading to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was one of those classics and Wynonna gives it the appropriately moody reading.

Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller are arguably one of the two or three greatest pop songwriting tandems in history. “I’m a Woman” was initially released in 1962 by Christine Kittrell, but is best remembered as a classic Peggy Lee track. Wynonna’s version is as good as any of them albeit very different from Peggy Lee’s sexy rendition, Wynonna’s being a very assertive R&B track

I am not a big fan of most Burt Bacharach-Hal David compositions, other than those written for the great Gene Pitney. That said, “Anyone Who Had A Heart” had a distinguished pedigree with British songbird Cilia Black taking her George Martin-produced record to #1 in the UK for three weeks in 1964. Cilla’s version also went to #1 in Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, but I don’t think it was released in the US. Dionne Warwick also had a notable hit (#8 pop/ #2 adult contemporary) with the song in the US but only got as high as #47 in the UK. Both versions competed in various global markets, basically to a draw in Europe. Wynonna’s version is a pretty standard, but effective presentation.

“When I Fall In Love” is a pop standard that has been recorded by many artists, most notably Jeri Southern and Doris Day. Wynonna gives it a fairly standard interpretation with the Nashville String Machine setting the mood for Wynonna’s strong vocal.

The album closes with a Rodney Crowell original “Sing”. I think that this is the weakest song on the album, but I would also give it a B+ which should tell you what I think of this album

Of all the Wynonna albums I’ve heard, this one is my favorite, both in terms of the strength of Wynonna’s vocals and the quality of the material. To me this is a definite A+.

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Live At Cobo Hall Detroit’

live at cobo hallAfter fifteen assorted albums in roughly a five year period, MGM finally got around to releasing a live album on Hank Jr. Released in July 1969, MGM SE-4644 was the third of five albums MGM would release in 1969. To my knowledge the album has never been released in any digital format, although Polygram did reissue it on vinyl a few years later.

Cobo Hall (now the Cobo Center) in Detroit might seem a strange venue in which to record a country album, but judging from the album that emerged from the concert it was just fine. Built in 1960 and named for Albert E Cobo (Detroit Mayor 1950-1957), Cobo Hall was one of the nation’s first really large convention centers and I believe that Hank Williams Jr. – Live At Cobo Hall was the first time a major recording label had recorded an album at such a venue.

This 1969 album catches Hank Jr. at a time when he was beginning to be his own man, and not merely a clone of his famous father. While the album has the obligatory Hank Sr. songs, it also features his own hit “Standing In The Shadows” and some covers of more recent material
Side One of the album opens with “Jambalaya”, one of Hank Sr.’s hits. Written by Hank Sr. (possibly with Moon Mullican as co-writer although not so credited) Hank Jr. tackles the song with the proper tempo and enthusiasm.

Next up is the Mel Tillis – Danny Dill classic “Detroit City” which was a hit twice in 1963 by Billy Grammer (under the title “I Wanna Go Home”) and by Bobby Bare. Hank does a nice job with the song.
Hank shows his total comfort with rock songs on his fast take on the Joe South composition “Games People Play”. This would have made a good single but Freddy Weller, a member of the rock group Paul Revere & The Raiders who was attempting to forge a career in country music, beat Hank to the punch taking the song to #1 on the Cashbox and Record World country charts a few months earlier.

That Hank chose to record the song at all was a harbinger of things to come in country music. Until 1968 what some would describe as songs of social consciousness had been rare in country music, in fact aside from Johnny Cash’s songs, they been virtually non-existent. In 1968 three songs, Roy Clark’s “Do You Believe This Town”, Henson Cargill’s “Skip A Rope” and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”, had cracked the door open further for this kind of material:

Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean

While they wile away the hours
In their ivory towers
Till they’re covered up with flowers
In the back of a black limousine

Chorus
La-da da da da da da da
La-da da da da da de
Talking ’bout you and me
And the games people play

Oh we make one another cry
Break a heart then we say goodbye
Cross our hearts and we hope to die
That the other was to blame

But neither one ever will give in
So we gaze at an eight by ten
Thinking ’bout the things that might have been
And it’s a dirty rotten shame

It would be unthinkable for Hank to have done a live album without showcasing one of this own hits, so “Standing In The Shadows” is up next. The song got a rousing ovation from the audience.

I know that I’m not great
And some say I imitate
Anymore I don’t know
I’m just doing the best I can

After all I’m standing in the shadows
Of a very famous man

The band is feature on an instrumental, the recent Flatt & Scruggs hit (from the movie Bonnie and Clyde)”Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It is a good rendition although the banjo player is definitely not in Earl Scrugg’s league. Snippets of several other songs are performed within this track (in jazz they call these ‘signatures’).

Side One closes out with an effective version of another Hank Sr. classic “You Win Again”.

Side Two opens with a classic George Jones song penned by Dickey Lee Lipscomb & Steve Duffy, “She Thinks I Still Care”. Hank Jr. isn’t George Jones (who is?) but he handles the song quite well.

Conway Twitty had a many #1 records in his illustrious career but “Darling You Know I Wouldn’t Lie” (#1 Cashbox / #1 Record World / #2 Billboard) is barely remembered today. Hank’s version opens with a nice steel guitar intro – in fact, the steel dominates the whole arrangement. This Wayne Kemp-Red Lane classic is the kind of song Conway Twitty really excelled at, and I really like Hank’s take on the song:

Here I am late again for the last time
And like I promised I just told her goodbye
Please believe me for this time it’s really over
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

Didn’t I come and tell you about her
How temptation lured she and I
Now I know it was only fascination
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

I had to let her down easy as slow as I could
After all she’s got feelings too
But it took a little longer than I thought it would
But this time she knows we’re really through

She wanted to hold me forever
And this lipstick shows her final try
And these tears on my shoulders are proof that she failed
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

The album closes with three Hank Sr. songs. In his earliest recordings Hank Jr. tried to be a clone of his father, but by now he was putting his stamp on the material.

There are many who consider “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as the greatest country song ever written (personally I’m torn between this song, “El Paso”, and “The Last Letter”), but it is a great song, even if Hank Jr.’s version does not live up to his father’s version (no one else’s version does either). It’s a great song and should be appreciated for what it is.

This is followed by “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; again Hank Jr. cannot quite get that lonesome sound in his voice that his father does, but he does a fine job. For whatever reason, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is not listed on the album cover, which caused me to think this was a shorter album than is actually the case.

The album closes with “I Saw The Light”. Country albums and live country shows frequently closed with gospel songs during this period of time. Unfortunately that tradition faded away in the 1970s
Unfortunately I was unable to find definitive information on the musicians playing on this album. Even PragueFrank’s website did not provide any information. Suffice it to say, it’s a very good band with a proficient steel player, a competent banjo and an excellent honky-tonk style pianist. I hope someday this gets released in a digital format with the missing tracks restored as bonus tracks. By the time this album was issued Hank Jr. had already scored a few more hits on non-Hank Sr. material, so I presume he might performed a few of them.

A few years ago I did an article on the twenty-five greatest live country albums. At that time, I placed this album sixteenth on my list, docking it a bit for the short playing time (based on the album’s back cover). The actual playing time is actually around thirty-two minute, which still seems too short – the album ended with me wanting more.

Obviously I give this album a solid A.

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 – ‘The Taker/Tulsa’

the taker tulsaThe double-titled 1971 album The Taker/Tulsa was released in 1971. Waylon was starting to take control over his music, and this was the first album he produced himself. The songs are full of substance and the arrangements solid.

Both the title tunes were singles. ‘The Taker’ was a significant hit, peaking at #5. This excellent song (written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein) is a perceptive depiction of a charming man who ends up hurting the woman who loves him:

He’s a talker
He’ll talk her right off of her feet
But he won’t talk for long
‘Cause he’s a doer, and he’ll do her
The way that I’d never
Damned if he won’t do her wrong.

He’s a taker
He’ll take her to places and make her
Fly higher than she’s ever dared to
He’ll take his time before takin’ advantage
Takin’ her easy and slow

And after he’s taken the body and soul she gives him
He’ll take her for granted
Take off and leave her
Takin’ all of her pride when he goes.

It was one of no less than four outstanding songs written by Kristofferson, then a relative newcomer to Nashville, and which help to make the album as a whole cohesive. Waylon’s version of the regretful ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’, a very recent hit for Johnny Cash, is convincing, with the song well suited to him. Less well known at the time, but at least as much of a classic today, was ‘Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)’, which Kristofferson was about to make a hit of in his own right. Waylon’s version is as good as any of this modern standard.

The least familiar of the Kristofferson songs for most listeners (although it has still been recorded a number of times) is ‘Casey’s Last Ride’, which may be the only country songs to be set on the London Underground, and may have been written when Kristofferson was studying at Oxford in the late 1950s, although the gloomy melody sounds to me to be influenced by the Beatles and other British 60s artists, which would place its composition later.

The second title song, ‘(Don’t Let The Sun Set On You) Tulsa’ is a dramatic story song written by Wayne Carson, it might be a kind of sequel to ‘The Taker’, with the protagonist championing the girl he loves, who has been abandoned and left pregnant by another man:

Jamie is the only thing I ever really cared for
She don’t deserve this kind of shame
She’s carryin’ the child that you’re to blame for
You just laughed and said
There ain’t no way it’s gonna get your name
I swore I’d get you for what you’re puttin’ her through
And the only reason I ain’t got you
Jamie cried and begged me not to
But I ain’t through with you yet
Don’t let the sun set on you in Tulsa

It’s a fine song which was a top 20 hit for Waylon, and should be better known. The last single, another top 20 hit, was Red Lane’s ‘Mississippi Woman. A brooding tale of jealousy, the narrator spies on, and eventually murders, the object of his affections.

The powerful ‘Six White Horses’ (not the Tommy Cash hit but another song with the same title, written by Bobby Bond), voices the fears of a soldier’s (blind) father for his boy:

Read again the letter that tells me where he’s gone
To hell with the fighting, I want my son home

I taught him to fish and I taught him to be strong
Taught him that killing any man was wrong
But tomorrow in battle I’d run to where he stood
If the help of a blind man would do any good

Last night I went to his room for a while
Touched all the things that he used as a child
I rocked the cradle where he used to lay
I found his tin soldiers and threw them away

Also downbeat in mood is ‘Grey Eyes You Know’, a string-laden lament by a bereaved husband for the beloved wife who stood by him through all the bad times.

A brisk cover of Don Gibson’s ‘(I’d Be) A Legend In My Time’ does not work as well for me as either the original or Ronnie Milsap’s big hit a few years later. Waylon write one song, the post-breakup ‘You’ll Look For Me’, which is quite good but not that memorable.

Overall this was an excellent album which shows Waylon stretching himself and asserting himself as an artist.

Grade: A

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Waylon’

Waylon_waylonWaylon Jennings began the 1970s with the self-titled Waylon. Nashville Brass founder Danny Davis joined Chet Atkins, Jennings sole producer until that time, to co-produce the project.

Waylon is best remembered for its only single, a spirited cover of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” that quickly rose to #3. Another significant track is Mickey Newbury’s “The Thirty-Third of August,” a dated and dreary ballad. The track was an early cut for the Texan, who would go on to key prominence in the Outlaw Movement and even be elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The jaunty harmonica drenched “Yellow Haired Woman” gave Jennings his sole writing credit on Waylon. Jennings co-wrote the tune, about his third wife Barbara Hood, with Red Lane. Lane solely contributed “Just Across The Way,” a schmaltzy ballad about a man, his lover, and the geographical distance that keeps them apart.

Jennings featured a heavily pop leaning version of Liz Anderson’s “Yes, Virginia” on his 1967 album The One and Only. An alternate take on the tune was featured here three years later. The confessional lyric is far better suited to the guitar-heavy production, which puts the man’s transgressions front and center.

“I May Never Pass This Way Again” is a cautionary tale written by Ray Buzzeo. The lyric focuses on a man’s warnings to a ‘little girl’ not to throw her virginity at him for the taking. Jennings’ commanding baritone only haunts the already creepy proceedings.

Another tale with a warning label is George Pollock’s “Don’t Play The Game.” Jennings is a man burned by a woman who doesn’t love him back. He has to learn the hard way that ‘if you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game.’

The heartache continues on “Shutting Out The Light,” which finds Jennings so fed up with his lady’s cool response that he puts an end to the relationship. The Nashville Sound signifiers, namely the background singers, date the recording significantly after forty-five years.

“This Time Tomorrow (I’ll Be Gone)” has Jennings in the role of a man realizing the woman he married is just like all the rest. He gives a mournful vocal on the tune about a man’s decision to leave town as a result of his enlightenment.

Waylon features two tracks that stand above the rest. Jim Owens’ “Where Love has Died” is an excellent ballad about a man trapped in a dead end marriage. The other highlight rests on a happier note as Anita Carter joins Jennings on Merle Haggard’s “All of Me Belongs To You.” Carter’s spirited vocal helps the delightful duet shine.

Jennings’ twelfth recording is a very, very good collection of ballads concerning various states of relationships as they reach their end. It’s a project that’s well worth seeking out, especially if you’re unfamiliar with this era of Jennings’ career.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Only The Greatest’

only the greatestThe title of Only The Greatest, released in 1968, may suggest a compilation, but in fact it was another new album, produced as before by Chet Atkins. The material focuses on broken hearts.

the initial single, ‘Walk On Out Of My Mind’ was Waylon’s iggest hit to date, reaching #5 on Billboard.

The album’s best remembered track was the booming assertive second single, #2 hit ‘Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’, the first real example of his mature style. This stands up today as an all-time classic.

The next best song is the Hank Cochran ballad ‘You’ll Think Of Me’, addressed to the protagonist’s ex-wife’s new husband, warning him of what lies ahead:

When the new wears off
And the glamor’s gone
But the ties that bind
Keep holdin’ on –
And they’re strong

You’ll think of me being with her
Like I thought of her
Being with them and you
And God knows who
You’re happy now but wait and see
When she treats you
Like she’s treated me
As you wake to see
Who the next will be
You’ll think of me

The perky ‘California Sunshine’, written by Harlan Howard has the lovelorn protagonist heading west to get over a heartbreak by finding new love. Waylon’s vocal is solid and committed, but the production has dated a bit.

Waylon shows his skills as a tender ballad singer on the Jerry Chesnut-penned ‘Weakness In A Man’. The Nashville Sound backing vocals, while dated, actually work quite well on this song, in which a disturbing threat of murdering his straying wife is masked by a gentle melody.

Waylon co-wrote just a couple of tunes: the pleasant sounding if lyrically doleful ‘Sorrow (Breaks A Man Down)’ is okay, but I really enjoyed the mid-tempo ‘Wave Goodbye To Me’, which he wrote with Don Bowman and Jackson King.

‘Christina’ is a Spanish-flavored number in the style of Marty Robbins, with bright horns. Red Lane wrote ‘Walk On Out Of My Mind’, a sad song about the aftermath of a breakup. ‘Such A Waste Of Love’ is a downbeat tune written by Bobby Bare, while ‘Long Gone’ is a Jerry Reed cover, and quite enjoyable.

One misstep is a cover of pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond’s ‘Kentucky Woman’, which just doesn’t translate into a country song – Waylon’s version is very similar to the original. While not precisely a misstep, Waylon’s perfectly good version of the beautiful ‘Too Far Gone’ (written by the late Billy Sherrill) pales a little in comparison to Emmylou Harris’s cover a few years later.

On the whole, though, this is a very good album which shows Waylon developing into the artist he was to become.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Loving Proof’

loving proofRicky’s second album was released in September 1988. It was another collection of neotraditional country music including an unusually high proportion of covers, and an overwhelming theme of undying love.

There were four top 5 singles, three of which hit the top spot. The first of these, ‘I’ll Leave This World Loving You’ is a beautifully sung slow ballad about a man resigned to forever love the woman who has broken his heart. It was written by Wayne Kemp, who had a minor hit with it himself in 1980, and is the kind of thing George Jones excelled at. It was also Ricky Van Shelton’s forte. Another Kemp song swearing eternal devotion ‘Don’t Send Me No Angels’ (which Jones covered a few years later) is happier in mood, although Ricky delivers it with a solemn intensity.

Also hitting #1 was another cover, Ned Miller’s international hit ‘From A Jack To A King’. The bright paced love song was followed by a slightly less successful cover in the shape of the retro-rockabilly ‘Hole In My Pocket’. The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song (previously recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens in his youth) peaked at #4. While Ricky clearly enjoyed performing in this style, and did it convincingly enough, he was much more effective as a balladeer. The up-tempo semi-rockabilly ‘Swimming Upstream’, which opens the set, is pleasant but forgettable.

It was back to the ballads, and back to the top with the album’s final single, ‘Living Proof’. This emotion-laden song tells of a woman whose life is dominated by a love enduring through heartbreak, and her eventual reunion with the protagonist.

There are several more fine ballads on offer. ‘Let Me Live With Love And Die With You’ is a romantic declaration written by Skip Ewing and Red Lane. Ricky got a rare co-writing credit on ‘The Picture’ (with his producer Steve Buckingham and Troy Seals). The song has the protagonist looking at a photograph of his lost love with her new man and child, and wishing he was still in her life. He wistfully imagines what the baby would look like if he were the father:

His hair would have been blonder
And his eyes would have been blue
If it was me in the picture with you

Ricky delved back into country music history for another cover, the Wilburn Brothers’ plaintive ‘Somebody’s Back in Town’, which I like a great deal. He also delivers the country standard ‘He’s Got You’ beautifully, with real passion and commitment, paced a little quicker than the Patsy Cline or Jim Reeves classic versions.

This second album was an excellent one, and I like it better than its predecessor. It’s well worth catching up with now. Like the latter, it sold very well and was certified platinum, positioning Ricky as one of the biggest stars of the era.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review – Doug Stone – ‘From The Heart’

DougfromheartDoug Stone was riding high with the success of his platinum selling sophomore album when he began feeling dizziness, arm & chest pain, and feelings of disorientation while on tour. He canceled his appearance at the 1992 ACM Awards and underwent Quintuple Bypass Surgery. Stone changed his eating and exercise habits in order to quickly resume his tour schedule.

His third album, the aptly titled From The Heart, was released that August with Doug Johnson producing once again. Upon its release critics had a field day with the irony of the album’s title in the wake of his medical issues.

Lead single “Warning Labels” was released in June. The uptempo shuffle, written by Kim Williams and Oscar Turman, casts Stone as a broken man in a barroom observing that “they ought to put warning labels on those sad country songs” coming from the jukebox. It’s an excellent and memorable lyric, but the production comes off forceful (and dated 21 years later), a little too in-your-face, and drowns out Stone’s vocal at times. The single was his seventh top-five hit in two years and peaked at #4.

Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw wrote “Too Busy Being In Love,” which topped the charts in early 1993. Like most of Stone’s trademark ballads, “Too Busy Being In Love” plays like a cheesy Lifetime movie, down to the slick piano-laced production. That being said, Stone’s tender vocal coupled with the production is still a winning combination to my ears, no matter how cheesy and horrid this sounds today.

“Made for Loving You” broke Stone’s streak of top five singles when it peaked at #6 (his second song to do so) in mid-1993. Previously recorded by both Clinton Gregory and Dan Seals, and written by Sonny Throckmorton and Curly Putman, the track is very similar in style to “Too Busy Being In Love,” though not nearly as polished, or hook-laden.

Stone returned to #1 with the album’s finale single, Paul Harrison and Bob McDill’s “Why Didn’t I Think of That.” A regretful uptempo honky-tonker, in which a man plays his last relationship out in his head after she’s moved on, is the album’s best single because it gets everything right – vocal, lyric, and production. It is also Stone’s most played (and remembered) recurrent single and the only one from this record that’s aged gracefully. It’s one of my favorite things Stone has ever done.

“Leave The Radio” exemplifies one of country music’s worst trends from the era, the clichéd breakup song with a woman packing her suitcase, leaving her man, etc. This variation has him begging her to leave him the radio. It’s nothing more then a horrid piece of embarrassing filler. “Left, Leaving, Going, or Gone” boasts a better execution, but is still as tired as “Leave The Radio” thematically. “She’s Got A Future In The Movies” (another Burr and Shaw co-write) is one of those novelty songs you hear once and like, but it grows grating on repeated listenings.  Meanwhile, “Working End of a Hoe,” an ode to farming cotton fields, has a nicely restrained production that works well. The chugging beat, laced with harmonica, works nicely with Stone’s twangy vocal.

Thankfully the remaining ballads are of a much higher quality. Stone co-wrote neo-traditional weeper “This Empty House” and brings palpable pain to his vocal performance. This would’ve been a home run if the steel had been more pronounced and heavier while Stone’s vocal is a bit too quiet.

The most outstanding and easily the strongest of the album cuts is Bucky Jones, Red Lane, and Royce Porter’s “Ain’t Your Memory Got No Pride At All.” The neo-traditional production is fabulous and Stone delivers one of the project’s strongest vocals. This should’ve been the single in place of “Made for Loving You,” and I bet it would’ve done really well.

There’s nothing wrong with an album that ties itself this closely to mainstream trends per se, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to From The Heart. Stone and Johnson highlight the worst of commercial country, forgoing any attempts to create a project with a long shelf life. Considering his contemporaries released everything from Hearts In Armor (Trisha Yearwood), I Still Believe In You (Vince Gill), The Chase (Garth Brooks), and A Lot About Livin’ (and A Little ‘Bout Love) (Alan Jackson) that same year, this is as mailed in as efforts get.

Grade: B- 

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Serving 190 Proof’

One would be hard pressed to find any duds within Merle Haggard’s Capitol catalog; during his dozen or so years with the label he and Ken Nelson created an impressive body of work. While Haggard continued to produce worthwhile music in his post-Capitol career, it’s generally acknowledged that his output was more hit or miss after he departed the label. Serving 190 Proof, produced by Fuzzy Owen and released in 1979 on MCA, is one of his less interesting efforts, despite producing two Top 5 hits.

Haggard wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s eleven tracks, including the two singles “Red Bandana” and “My Own Kind Of Hat”, both of which peaked at #4. “Red Bandana” is about a pair of free spirits, 30 years into their relationship, and now she apparently wants to settle down, but Merle states emphatically that “I can’t change and live the way you want me to.” “My Own Kind Of Hat” is a whimsical ditty about marching to the beat of a different drummer. The catchy lyrics have fun with some words that contain double meanings, as well as a few double entendres:

There’s two kinds of brothers and two kinds of lovers
And two kinds of babies to hold
There’s two kinds of cherries and two kinds of fairies
And two kinds of mothers, I’m told, and told …

The rest of the album takes a more serious tone. The opening track “Footlights” is one of the most introspective songs Haggard ever recorded. It talks about the loneliness and isolation of life on the road, having to put on a brave face and smile for the sake of the fans, and — despite tremendous professional success — having to little to celebrate in his personal life. “Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)” is a little more upbeat, despite the serious lyrics. The melody is somewhat similar to “C.C. Waterback”, which Merle would record a few years later with George Jones, but “Got Lonely” lacks the energy of that later track. It plods along and somehow doesn’t quite work.

The album’s best track is one that Haggard didn’t write. “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, penned by the always reliable Sanger D. Shafer, finds Merle in therapy to overcome a drinking problem. Had the song been written a few years later, one could easily imagine Keith Whitley singing it.

As the album progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Haggard was in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts. He talks about loneliness and advancing age in “Footlights”, a drinking problem in “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, and in “Driftwood” he is drifting through life without purpose. He finds that he can’t run away from his problems in “I Can’t Get Away” and in Red Lane’s “I Must Have Done Something Bad”, he’s been betrayed by a wife or girlfriend and thinks that it must be retribution for something he did in the past. He turns nostalgic with “Sing A Family Song” and holds out some hope that things will get better in the album’s closing track “Roses In The Winter”, which despite, being a very pretty song, doesn’t seem to be a good fit for Merle.

Whether it was his state of mind or the absence of Ken Nelson, Serving 190 Proof is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are good, but as a collection it seems a bit lifeless. By most other artists’ standard, Serving 190 Proof would be considered stellar work, but while it is by no means a bad album, it fails to reach the high bar set by Haggard’s earlier work on Capitol. While it is not his best work, it is still worth a listen, and is easy to find on CD and as a digital download.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘My Love Affair With Trains’ and ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

After over a decade on Capitol, 1976 saw Haggard calling a halt to his association with the label. He was still at his peak, and that year he was to release three albums, two of which are avilable on one CD reissue. One of these was his first thematic concept album (as opposed to his tributes to two of the musical heroes who had inspired him), My Love Affair With Trains. Haggard wanted to document his lifelong love of trains at a time when this important element of American history was being swept away, and to pay tribute to the men who had worked and lived on the railroads.

It opens with an acoustic snippet from ‘Mama Tried’ with its reference to his childhood dreams of trains, leading into the first of a series of spoken reminiscences and comments over a selection of genuine train and whistle sounds, which are interspersed with the songs. Proceedings open with the Dolly Parton-penned title track, a cheerful mid-tempo number with solid train rhythms which belies the generally elegiac mood. The subdued and melancholy ‘Union Station’, written by Ronnie Reno (the bluegrass singer and musician who was then a member of the Strangers) about a station threatened with demolition, exemplifies the overall tone.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the obvious personal resonance of the subject matter, only one song is a Haggard original. That self-penned song is the firmly autobiographical ‘No More Trains To Ride’, a catchy mid-tempo song, with somewhat wistful lyrics as Merle reflects on his father’s railroad career and the hoboes in a vanished world. Red Lane’s ‘The Coming And Going Of The Trains’ narrates the story of the railways over history by dipping into the lives of those affected. There is the arrival of the railroads, displacing the Native Americans, providing a lifeline for drought stricken farmers in Texas, giving hope to prisoners measuring time by counting off trains, and finally the regret of an engineer about to be pensioned off. Mark Yeary’s ‘I Won’t Give Up My Train’ is a first person story song about a railroad engineer who can’t bring himself to leave the travelling life even when it conflicts with his family responsibilities. Read more of this post

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Thousand Winding Roads’

Joe’s debut solo album was released on Epic in 1990, and immediately propelled him to stardom; overnight success (at the age of 32) which was thoroughly deserved, because this is an excellent album, and a fine exemplar of the neotraditional movement which all too briefly dominated the genre. It was produced by Bob Montgomery (then also working with Vern Gosdin) and Johnny Slate. They provided a sympathetic backing which showcased Joe’s vocal prowess.

The lead single ‘Home’ (written by Andy Spooner and Fred Lehner), which has the disillusioned protagonist looking wistfully back to his childhood, took Joe right to the top of the charts. It set records as the first ever debut single to hit #1 on all three of the major charts then in existence (Billboard, Radio & Records, and Gavin). The nostalgia feeds on the protagonist’s disillusionment about the dreams he has been pursuing:

The rainbows I’ve been chasing keep on fading before I find my pot of gold…

Now the miles I put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And it’s way too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind I’m always going home

The pained ballad ‘If You Want Me To’ was almost as successful, reaching #2 in 1991, and is my personal favorite of the four singles from this project. One of Joe’s own songs (written with Larry Williams), it was the first showcase of the apparently effortless slide between registers which is Joe’s most remarkable gift as a vocalist, as the narrator gently tells his beloved he is prepared to do whatever she wants from him, even if:

If it takes good-bye to make you happy
Then I’ll just walk away if you want me to

‘If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)’, written by Kim Williams (Larry’s brother) and Ken Spooner, took Joe back to #1, with its witty western swing twist on being broke and too easily swayed by a persuasive car salesman. The optimistic final single was written by Joe with his friend and regular co-writer Lonnie Wilson (who also plays drums and sings backing vocals on the album), about finding a ‘New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)’. The only really happy song on the album, it was another #2 Billboard hit, and cemented Joe’s status as one of the brightest new stars of the early 90s.

Heartbreak also comes uptempo with the drinking-to-forget-the-heartbreak song ‘I Ain’t Leavin’ Til She’s Gone’ (written by Joe with Wayne Perry and Lonnie Wilson). Joe wails,

One drink’s too many
Ten ain’t enough
Lord, but she’s still here
So I’ll have one more

More western swing is on offer with the similarly themed ‘Liquid Heartache’, another of Joe’s songs, this one written with the veteran Red Lane, with a great groove which really lets the musicians stretch out.

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