My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

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Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Brotherhood’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 6

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

Forgive and Forget” – Eddie Rabbitt (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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