My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Blue Jungle’

blue jungleThe 1990s saw Haggard make what he hoped would be a new start as, following his departure from Epic, he signed a deal with Curb Records. His first album for the label featured mainly his own songs, and they’re a good collection.

There was only one single, ‘When It Rains It Pours’, which was almost ignored by radio, peaking at #30. But was this a missed opportunity? Haggard wanted his topical polemic ‘Me And Crippled Soldiers’ to be the lead single, but the label relegated it to the B-side, perhaps fearful that its message would be controversial. Written by Hag with his ex-wife Bonnie Owens, it was an outraged response to a recent Supreme Court decision which allowed burning the US flag as an expression of free speech. It may not have been a hit, but it still made an impact as a live favourite, and perhaps if it had been released in the download era I suspect it would have garnered big sales.

The actual single, ‘When It Rains It Pours’ is a rather downbeat little ballad about missing a loved one, written by John Cody Carter. It’s not a bad song, but it’s easy to see how it got lost in the competition from younger stars in the ferment of 1990.

There were other songs tackling current issues. ‘Under The Bridge’ and ‘My Home Is In The Street’ (the latter a co-write with wife Theresa) both put a personal face to the issue of homelessness. In both takes, a middle aged man loses his family’s home as the result of losing a job, and both songs express a positive attitude to life despite their dire circumstances:

No sir, I’m not homeless
We just need a house to put it in

The title track is a mellow western swing about the dreariness of a workday city life without a lover. There is a nice cover of one of Jimmie Rodgers’ lesser known tunes, ‘Never No Mo’ Blues’, with some authentic yodelling.

The best song on the album is the lost-love ballad ‘Lucky Old Colorado’, written by Red Simpson. Also excellent in the same style is ‘Sometimes I Dream’, and the wistful ‘Driftwood’, both fine new Haggard compositions.

Finally, the enjoyable shuffle ‘A Bar In Bakersfield’ which Hag wrote with Freddy Powers from the point of view of a musician who never made it big. Very charming.

This is a very nice album, with a generally subdued, low key feel, and a step back to more traditional country sounds from the jazz influences of his later Epic releases. There’s still an occasional bit of brass, but it is very much in the background. Unfortunately, lacking a big hit single or much in the way of promotion, it did not prove much of a commercial success, but it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dale Watson – ‘The Truckin’ Sessions’

truckin sessionsOnce upon a time, a long time ago, on a faraway planet similar to, yet very different from our own, existed a genre of music called Country Music. Within that genre was a subgenre know as Truck Driving Music, a subgenre mostly populated by big men with deep rumbling voices that sounded of too many cigarettes and too much coffee consumed at 3 AM at truck stops and diners around the country. This subgenre was populated by legendary singers such as Dick Curless, Del Reeves, Red Simpson, and Red Sovine. The king of the genre, the man so loved by truck drivers that the Teamsters Union awarded him a gold membership card, was Dave Dudley.

Meanwhile back on our own planet, the genre of Truck Driving Music barely exists at all, at least to judge from what is played by radio and CMT. What we have instead is songs about ruttish young males with their pickup trucks searching for scantily-clad females. Most of it is garbage and almost none of it is memorable.

That the genre of Truck Driving Music exists at all is largely due to the efforts of one brave man, Dale Watson, who has issued three complete albums of Truck Driving Music, starting with The Truckin’ Sessions, issued in 1993. With this album Watson brings the feel of classic Truck Driving Music front and center for the first time in at least a decade and a half , or since the decline of the CB era.

Dale Watson wrote all fourteen of the songs on The Truckin’ Sessions, and while it might have been interesting to hear Dale’s take on some of the old classics of the genre, the product presented here is more than satisfactory , and is a worthy successor to the tunes of Dave Dudley, Red Simpson, et al.

Most of the songs on the album are taken at an up-tempo reminiscent of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” or “There Ain’t No Easy Rides”; however, the overall feel of the album owes more to the ‘Bakersfield Sound’ of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Speedy West and Red Simpson, than to anything produced in Nashville.

“Good Luck ‘n’ Good Truckin’ Tonite” opens the album with one of those up-tempo songs referenced above. This track is followed by “Big Wheels Keep Rollin’ ” a song which reminds me of the Merle Haggard classic “White Line Fever”

Big wheels keep rollin’
Feel the rumble ‘neath my feet
Big wheels keep rollin’
The feelin’s a part of me

This is followed by “Heaven In Baltimore” an upbeat number about the girl waitin for him in Baltimore. The arrangement is similar to the ‘freight train’ sound that Buck Owens used during the 1960s.

Heaven in Baltimore
Heaven in Baltimore
Put the pedal to the metal
She’s waitin’ by the door
My Heaven in Baltimore

“Have You Got It On” is a mid-tempo ballad featuring some really nice steel guitar work by band member Ricky (C-Note) Davis. In fact, Davis shines through the album.

I see you roving up by tough look side
You got a six foot Shakespeare stickin’ in the sky
You’re smiling at me from your side view mirror
We might be closer than we appear

Babe, have you got it on?
Babe, have you got it on?
Come on, come on, come back
Babe, have you got it on?

“Makin’ Up Time” picks up the tempo as does “Flat Tire”, a song about a trucker stranded by a flat. The arrangement on this song would fit nicely onto many of Dave Dudley’s efforts.

“Drag Along and Tag Along” is a bluesy ballad in which Davis runs some steel guitar runs that remind one of Speedy West.

“Exit 109″ finds our hero being seduced by a female on the CB radio for a tryst, whereas ” Help Me Joe” tells the tale of a trucker far away from home who is fueled by coffee in his efforts to survive

“Everyday Knuckleclutchin’ Gearjammin’ Supertruckin’ Loose Nut Behind The Wheel” is a trucker’s self-description of himself and his life.

Stopped to grab a cup of Pick-Me-Up
At the Pink Poodle Coffee Shop
I had a pow-wow with a couple of pals
I said I’d meet there on the flip flop
We started tradin’ stories with a little added glory
You’d think we were made of steel
Just your everyday knuckleclutchin’ gearjammin’ …

“You’ve Got A Long Way To Go” is an older truckers words of advice to a young driver.

“Longhorn Suburban” is a mid-tempo ballad extolling the joys of the open road.

The up-tempo arrangement, reminiscent of Del Reeves’ “Looking At The World Through A Windshield”, belies the sad lyrics of “I’m Fixin’ To Have Me A Breakdown”, a tale of a truck driver whose girl has left him.

Despite the solitary nature of the job, most truck drivers are family men and the reason why they persevere is exemplified by “I Gotta Get Home To My Baby”. It’s a topic that has been dealt with many times, and Dale does it as well as anyone.

That big eyed smile and a long hard hug
That’s what I got waitin’ for me
Move out of my way
I gotta get there today
She’s got her heart countin’ on me

I really liked this album and the full and tight sound Dale’s band achieves with only four musicians. Because Dale plays his own lead guitar, he seems to let the steel guitar carry more of the melody lines than might otherwise be the case. Preston Rumbaugh plays bass and Brian Ferriby plays the percussion as it should be played – strictly to keep the rhythm.

Grade: an easy A+

Album Review: Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen – ‘Bakersfield Bound’

chrishillmanAlthough not marketed as such, 1996’s Bakersfield Bound is, in many ways, a Desert Rose Band reunion album, as it finds Chris Hillman working with both Herb Pedersen and DRB steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness again. The music is decidedly more traditional and less commercial than anything that the Desert Rose Band ever attempted and that may be why Hillman and Pedersen avoided labeling it as such.

Despite its title and Hillman’s and Pedersen’s west coast roots, this is not, strictly speaking, a salute to the Bakersfield sound in the same vein as many of the tribute albums that have been released since Buck Owens died in 2006. There is a healthy dose of Bakersfield, to be sure, but there are plenty of non-Bakersfield influences as well. Hillman and Pedersen harmonize on the albums 13 tracks in ways that are in reminiscent at times of The Everly Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, and the Willburn Brothers as well as Buck Owens and Don Rich. The album’s first track “Playboy” was written by Eddie Miller, who was more famous for having written “There She Goes” for Carl Smith, “Thanks a Lot” for Ernest Tubb, and “Release Me” which was recorded by Kitty Wells and countless others. Hillman and Pedersen effectively channel The Louvin Brothers with an excellent cover of “My Baby’s Gone”. Also excellent is their version of “Lost Highway”, a 1948 composition by Leon Payne, which was most famously recorded by Hank Williams in 1949..

Perhaps the most surprising cover here is “Time Goes So Slow”, a beautiful waltz that was written by Skeeter Davis and Marie Wilson, which finds Herb Pedersen harmonizing at what has to be the very top of his register.

These songs aside, the meat and potatoes of this album are the Bakersfield tunes, which pay tribute to such legends as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Owens is saluted with covers of “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore”, “There Goes My Love”, and “Close Up The Honky Tonks”, which was written by Red Simpson. Haggard is represented by a cover of the Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin-penned “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. The album closes with two Hillman co-writes, “Just Tell Me Darlin'” and the title track.

This an outstanding album with impeccable song choices and excellent singing and picking throughout. It’s virtually impossible to select any favorite tracks, because they are all so good. It is a must-have for fans of Chris Hillman, The Desert Rose Band, and fans of roots music in general.

Grade: A+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 7

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

I’m Having Your Baby” – Sunday Sharpe (1974)
Female answer to a rather lame Paul Anka hit with the answer song being better (or at least more believable) than the original. Ms. Sharpe originally was from Orlando, FL, but seemingly has disappeared from view. This song reached #10 on Cashbox, her only Top 10 hit (#11 Billboard). A few years later she had one more top twenty hit with “A Little At A Time”.

“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” – Billy Joe Shaver (1973)
For a guy whose only two charting records charted at 88 and 80, and who can’t sing a lick, Billy Joe Shaver has had a heck of a career as a recording artist, issuing several acclaimed albums. Of course, his main claim to fame is as a songwriter.

Slippin’ Away” – Jean Shepard (1973)
Jean took this Bill Anderson composition to #1 (Cashbox) reviving a career that Capitol had abandoned. Jean was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, an honor two decades overdue.

Devil In The Bottle” – T.G. Sheppard (1975)
T.G. kicked off his career as a singer under the T.G. Sheppard name (real name Bill Browder, and recorded also as Brian Stacey) with consecutive #1s. T.G. would have fourteen #1 singles between 1975 and ’86, along with three more that reached #2 . He worked for Elvis at one point, before kicking off his solo career.

Greystone Chapel” – Glen Sherley (1970)
This song first saw the light of day when Johnny Cash recorded it for the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album in 1968. At the time Glen Sherley was a prisoner at Folsom. This was his only chart record, reaching #63. In addition to this song, Sherley had several other songs he’d written recorded, most notably Eddy Arnold’s recording of “Portrait of My Woman.” Johnny Cash helped get Glen Sherley released from prison, and even had him as part of his road show for a while. Unfortunately, Glen Sherley was unable to adapt to life outside of prison, and committed suicide in 1978.

Dog Tired of Cattin’ Around” – Shylo (1976)
An amusing tune, Shylo recorded for Columbia during the years 1976-1979. This single charted at #75. Columbia would release eight charting singles but none went higher than #63.

I’m A Truck” – Red Simpson (1971)
A truck tells its side of the story:

There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
No double-clutching gear- jamming coffee drinking nuts
They’ll drive their way to glory and they have all the luck
There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
.

Red’s biggest hit, in fact his only top 30 record, reaching #1 Cashbox/#4 Billboard. Simpson was from Bakersfield and co-wrote a number of songs with Buck Owens, many of which Buck recorded, including “Sam’s Place” and “Kansas City Song.” Junior Brown recently recorded Red’s “Highway Patrol.” Curiously enough, “I’m A Truck” was not written by Red Simpson, but came from the pen of Bob Stanton, who worked as a mailman and sent Red the song.

Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” – Patsy Sledd (1972)
Great debut recording – it only reached #68 but unknown to Ms. Sledd, her record label was created as a tax write off, so that there was no promotional push for anyone by the label. The next single “Chip Chip” reached #33 but from there it was all downhill. Patsy was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show for a few years.

The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” – Cal Smith (1973)
Bill Anderson wrote it and Cal Smith took it to #1 on March 3, 1973. Cal only had four Top 10 records, but three of them went to #1. His biggest chart hit was “It’s Time To Pay The Fiddler,” but this song and “Country Bumpkin” are probably the best remembered songs for the former member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.   Cal actually changed a few of the words from what Bill had written, probably a change for the better.

“Mama Bear” – Carl Smith (1972)
Carl only had one Top 10 song after 1959 and this song wasn’t it, dying at #46. By the time this record was issued, Carl was 45 years old and his career as a recording artist was stone-cold dead but that doesn’t mean he quit making good records. Carl issued many good records in the 1970s, but only “Pull My String and Wind Me Up” and “How I Love Them Old Songs” would reach the top twenty. Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Rosanne Cash’s first inroads on the country charts came from the minor hits on Right Or Wrong, but it would be Seven Year Ache, with its disparate themes of melancholy and female-empowerment, coupled with exceptionally cerebral material, that set the standard for Cash’s next decade of recording. The memes set here, of folk singer-songwriter sensibilities meets modern pop-country production, have since been repeated by the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and any number of other fringe-favorites.

I’ve already written about this album’s first single and its impact on me as a country fan.  Even today, with a seriously out-dated production – the kind of synthetic hand-clap percussion employed here went out with the Atari, and for many of the same reasons – the track still packs a mighty, meaty punch. The dark, contemplative mood of the song – the internal monologue of bewildered, yet determined individual – is offset by the breezy melody and the entire affair is framed by a looping and driving steel guitar track supplied by Hank DeVito. Cash reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband and producer Rodney Crowell.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  ”That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.  In 1981, “Seven Year Ache” hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, #6 on the Adult Contemporary list, and #22 on the Hot 100.  It’s been covered several times over the years, most notably by Trisha Yearwood (with Cash featured on vocals, providing the harmonies Emmylou Harris sang on the original recording) on 2001’s Inside Out.

The second single and second #1, Leroy Preston’s “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train”, more than any other track Rosanne Cash has recorded save for covers of the Man In Black’s songs, is a testament to Johnny Cash’s musical influence on his oldest daughter.  The steady and chugging back beat is accompanied by blistering guitar work, and progressive lyrics like:

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

“Blue Moon With Heartache” is the only song here besides the title track Cash herself put pen to paper to create. On this brooding number, the results were less satisfying. The story of a woman living in a troubled relationship, and daydreaming about leaving, is played out amid the intrusive electric piano and a swelling, but hushed, string arrangement.  This, too, topped the country singles chart, but a much better candidate for the final single would have been “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”, written by Merle Haggard and Red Simpson. “Go” is the most traditional country song on the album with steel guitar flourishes and no signs of pop or rock influences, and while simple in form is an effective heart’s-breaking lyric.

At times, Cash seems bent on pushing the boundaries of a female country album as far as she possibly can, in both form and function. Listening to the roadhouse rocker “What Kinda Girl”, clearly as influenced by Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones as by Loretta Lynn and The Tennessee Three, the cheeky lyrics – “I don’t wear pajamas and I don’t sniff glue” – and butchered-grammar rhyme scheme will turn your head on the first few listens, but the track loses much of its appeal soon after you’re over the cheap tricks.  “Only Human” may be the first time, and maybe still the only, instance of a woman using the word “stoned” on a mainstream country album. Keith Sykes’ honest lyric is marred somewhat by the straight ’80s pop production and the loud backing vocals, but is a marvelous song nonetheless that finds the narrator lamenting her own mortality for the anguish it indirectly causes. Another miss is  “I Can’t Resist” which ventures into easy-listening territory with Phil Kenzie’s saxophone playing and the singer’s detached vocal. “Where Will The Words Come From” with Crowell and Harris providing perfectly desolate harmonies, save for a minimal amount of the era’s background noise, follows the singer’s more recent sounds with its spare production.

Seven Year Ache was an album of firsts for Cash, not just in style and substance, but for being her first #1 charting album, housing her first #1 country singles, and her first pop hit.  It also marks the singer’s first instance of finding her artistry. Despite the missteps in production, which can easily be blamed on the release date as much as the artist and producer, this is a collection of great songs that set the stage for the first phase of a remarkable career.

Grade: A-

The album was released as a 2-for-1 with Rosanne’s U.S. debut album and has been re-released on CD and for digital download.