My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Shel Silverstein

Album Review: Kevin Moon – ‘The Kevin Moon EP’

kevin-moon-epWe were recently reminded that Kevin Moon (whose Throwback album was one of my favourites of last year) had released new music. One of my minor gripes with that album was that it consisted of rather well worn material, and here he tackles new or lesser known songs. It turns out to be halfway between an EP and a full length album, with eight tracks, and as far as I can see is only available digitally.

The best song is the opening ‘Good Whiskey’, a great song in which the protagonist first rejects alcohol as a cure for his heartbreak:

They don’t make Jack strong enough to get you off my mind
There really ain’t nothin’ they could fix me
I could drink it all but you still wouldn’t miss me
It’d be a waste of good whiskey

‘What If She Don’t’ is a nice love song with the protagonist unsure whether the object of his affections understands the depths of his love. He then explains it to her in the attractive ‘Girl That’s How’. ‘Cowgirl’s Gonna Dream’ is a sweet song about an ordinary Tennessee country boys who manages to land a Texan cowgirl as his wife.

‘Scarecrow’ is an anthroporphic description of the farmer’s friend, and has a certain charm. The relaxed ‘Blue Agave Shore’ dreams of a Mexican vacation but settles for a back porch.

There are a couple of covers, both from the 1970s. Eric Clapton’s romantic ‘Wonderful Tonight’ works surprisingly well as a country song, and has been done by country artists before – David Kersh (now largely forgotten) had a top 20 hit with it in the late 90s. Kevin’s version is tender and convincing, and really very good.

‘Daddy What If’, written by Shel Silverstein, was a hit for Bobby Bare and his 5 year old son. Kevin recruits his three year old, Weston, to sing the child’s part on this rather twee tune. The little boy has a vague approach to pitch, but the overall effect is rather sweet.

Moon has an attractive voice, and while this album has a more modern sound than Throwback, it is still solidly country. A couple of extra songs would have been welcome, but it’s still a worthwhile release.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Dallas Wayne – ‘Songs The Jukebox Taught Me’

songs the jukebox taught meCountry DJ-singer-songwriter Dallas Wayne has a big booming voice which has not been heard on record for a while; his last album was released back in 2009. Now signed to traditionalist label Heart Of Texas Records, his fantastic new album shares some less familiar cover tunes which offer a solid honky tonk reminder of what country used to be.

Willie Nelson duets with Dallas on the lively shuffle ‘Your Time’s Comin’’, which was a #4 hit for Faron Young in 1969, and was written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein. The cynical lyric relates a hookup with a woman who claims to be a neglected wife, but turns out to be an unrepentant serial cheater:

Just as I got up to leave
He walked through the door
And I guess that I thought he’d be surprised
But he looked at me as if to say
He’d been there before
And he offered me this word to the wise

He said, “you know she’s a cheater, son
But you believe that you’re the one
Who’s got a lot of what it takes to change her
And I’ve no doubt that you can get her
You ain’t much but that don’t matter
Nothing suits her better than a stranger
And the stranger man, the better
The chances are she’ll set her eyes on you
The next time she goes slummin’
So just sit back and wait your turn, boy
You got lots of time to learn, boy
Cool it while you can,
‘Cause your time’s comin’

Well, it happens that in time
It happened just like he said
And soon enough her shoes
Were sittin’ under my bed
And I’ll confess I did my best
To prove that man had lied
But nothing short of suicide
Could keep her satisfied

He ends up passing on the same advice to his successor.

Another Faron Young hit, ‘Three Days’ was written by Young with Willie Nelson. This has a loungier feel to the vocal.

Another enjoyable shuffle, ‘A Dime At A Time’, is about someone who is both broke and broken hearted, killing time one jukebox tune after another. It was a #12 hit for Del Reeves in 1967.

The mournful ballad ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights In Your World Tonight’ (a top 40 hit for Mel Street in 1980 and recorded by many other artists including George Jones and neotraditionalist Ricky Van Shelton) is loaded with steel and an emotional vocal does it justice.

The Nashville sound gets represented as well as the hardcore honky tonkers, with a string-laden version of Vern Gosdin’s 1977 top 10 hit ‘Yesterday’s Gone’. Willie Nelson’s daughter Paula guests on this, taking the part Emmylou Harris did on the original. It can’t match the exquisite original, but is still a nice recording with a strongly emotional reading.

‘No Relief In Sight’ is a stellar lost-love ballad which has been recorded a number of times, and is done well here. The sentimental Hank Jr ballad ‘Eleven Roses’ is also beautifully sung, with the song’s co-writer Darrell McCall’s wife Mona providing a harmony vocal.

‘It Just Doesn’t Seem To Matter’ was written by Jeannie Seely for herself and duet partner Jack Greene. She lends a hand on Dallas’s version, and while her voice is not what it was in her youth, the song itself is a fine one. ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’, another Seely composition, is a deeply sad ballad:

In more ways than one way I was her clown

She always got what she wanted
She got what she wanted for free
She always got what she wanted
Lord I wish that she wanted me

‘Sun Comin’ Up’ is a Nat Stuckey song I hadn’t heard before, but I was struck by the tune’s strong similarity to that of Randy Travis’s ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’. The upbeat feel of the melody is belied by a remorselessly dark lyric depicting a homeless alcoholic:

It’s that time of the mornin’ when the sun starts comin’ up
And I’m standin’ on the corner with my guitar and my cup
And I’m waitin’ for some people to come by and fill it up
But the sun ain’t come up yet this morning
I spend nights in the barrooms for the small change I can make
But the money don’t repay me for the things I have to take
Somebody buys me liquor, then they laugh at how I shake
But it makes my sun come up each morning
See that man with the spit-shine on his shoes, I know him well
He’ll slip me half a dollar, walk on by me, turn and yell
“Hey, that five spot ain’t for liquor!”
Well, he can go to hell
‘Cause he just made my sun come up this morning

Lord, I wish I could remember how it feels to be a man
To get knocked down and have the guts to get back up again
And know that I don’t really need this bottle in my hand
To make my sun come up each morning
I guess the devil knows he’s got me when the bottle does me in
Hell can’t be no worse than places I’ve already been
And I don’t wanna go to heaven
‘Cause I hear there ain’t no gin
To make my sun come up each morning

Dallas is very believable on this, and also on another powerful anti-alcohol anthem, ‘Devil In The Bottle’, a 1974 chart topper for T G Sheppard. The social commentary of ‘Skip A Rope’ still hits home, too.

‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ is delivered briskly and is pleasant but inessential listening, at least in comparison to the rest of the album. ‘Stop The World And Let me Off’ balances pace and emotion more effectively and is rather enjoyable.

Overall, this is an excellent reminder of what real country music sounds like. I thoroughly recommend it.

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 – ‘Just To Satisfy You’

just to satisfy youWaylon’s first album release of 1969 was Just To Satisfy You. Released in March, the album would eventually reach #7 on Billboard’s country album chart and would result in one single, “I Got You”.

Just To Satisfy You is an eclectic mix of covers and new material that shows Waylon’s versatility, if nothing else.
The album opens with “Lonely Weekends”, a song that Charlie Rich wrote during his years on Sun Records. The song never charted for Charlie on the country charts but it was an integral part of his stage show for years and did have some pop success. Waylon gives the song a strong vocal reading, but the presence of a ‘wah-wah’ guitar riff is a bit off-putting.

“(Come On Home and) Sing the Blues to Daddy” was one of those songs that had ‘hit’ written all over it but it just didn’t happen for anyone. Bob Luman got the song up to #24 Billboard/#13 Record World, and many artists used the song as an album track. Waylon’s version is slower and a bit more bluesy than most versions I’ve heard, and I think the organ could be eliminated. My ears tell me that Bobby Bare is singing along with Waylon on this song, although I haven’t see him credited.

During this period, Curley Putnam was having much success as a songwriter. While “Change My Mind” never really had any potential as a single, it is a very good song, a slow ballad, that Waylon
performs very effectively.

If I should get a look of leavin’ in my eyes
Put your arms ’round me, woman, and change my mind
If I ever seem too restless or dissatisfied
Put your arms ’round me, woman, and change my mind

Don’t let me separate your love from mine
Don’t let me leave you, I might get the urge some time
If I do, you’ll know what to do to keep me by your side
Put your arms ’round me, baby, and change my mind

Many artists recorded the Lawton Williams song “Farewell Party” before Gene Watson finally turned it into a hit single, among them Jimmy Dickens and Ray Price. Waylon’s effort would not have been a good single lacking the dramatic presentation that Watson gave it. Waylon’s version is a straight forward ballad, with piano and organ seeming to dominate the instrumental arrangement. Waylon’s version also lacks the key change at the start of the second verse that Watson’s version made the standard interpretation.

“Rings of Gold”, written by Gene Thomas, was a song that reach #2 as a duet by label-mates Don Gibson and Dottie West. Waylon is joined by Anita Carter and their version could have worked as a single. Both Waylon and Anita had better voices that Don & Dottie so I don’t doubt that Waylon & Anita would have had at least as big a hit as their label-mates managed. I believe that this track was recorded a year or so before most of the tracks on the album.

Isn’t there anyone who’ll take me like I am‘ is the question asked in “Alone”, a Dee Moeller composition sung to perfection by Waylon. The song is a slow ballad with a mostly acoustic feel that needs to be heard several times in order to get the full impact of this very sad song.

Isnt there anyone
Who’ll take me like I am?
Someone who is willing
To take the blue in man

Someone that’ pleased enough
With herself to let me be
Someone who would love me
And try to understand my needs

No, I guess there isn’t
And theres no place
I can go, I guess
I’m destined to be alone

Waylon and pal Don Bowman collaborated on “Just to Satisfy You”, easily the best song on the album. I love the song and I feel that RCA missed a real bet in not choosing the song for single release.

Someone’s gonna get hurt before you’re through
Someone’s gonna pay for the things you do
How many hearts must break,how many will it take
To satisfy you,just to satisfy you
Another love,another fool
To play your game
Another love,another fool
They’re all the same
Someone’s gonna get hurt before you’re through
Don’t be surprised if that someone is you
You’re gonna find when it’s too late,a heart that just won’t break
To satisfy you, just to satisfy you

Helen Carter was one of Mother Maybelle’s daughters and sister to June Carter and Anita Carter. She was a fine singer and better song writer. I think that Waylon does on outstanding job on this thoughful ballad:

You tear me down a hundred times a day I’ve cried enough to wash the world away
I’ve tried so hard to be what you’ve wanted me to be
Till somewhere along the way I lost me
To give and keep on giving I have learned
There’s no way but yours where you’re concerned
I tried till finally I lost my own identity and somewhere along the way I lost me

I usually associate Ben Peters with upbeat songs like “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” but he was capable at the slower ballads, too. “I’ve Been Needing Someone Like You” is wistful but given a believable treatment by Waylon with harmonica prominent in the mix.

Although often remembered for novelties, with “For the Kids”, Shel Silverstein shows that he can tackle serious topic as well. This song tells of the breakup of a marriage with focus on the affects of divorce on the children. Again, this is another slow ballad that Waylon nails.

Ricci Mareno is probably best known for the string of successful hit records he wrote and produced for Tommy Overstreet in the early 1970s. “I Got You”, a Ricci Mareno- Gordon Galbraithvco-write was the only single released from this album. Waylon is joined by Anita Carter on this medium tempo ballad that reached #4 on the Billboard charts. At the time this record was produced, RCA was looking for reasons to use the Nashville Brass on their country recordings. There are trumpets in evidence toward the end of this single. When RCA tried to have Danny Davis, the leader of the Nashville Brass produce his records, Waylon rebelled.
The album closes with another Dee Moeller composition in “Straighten My Mind”, a mid-tempo ballad with brass instrumental breaks. The song is a a good one which Waylon sings well:

A tiger always walks at night and marks his prey while everything’s still
He waits until it’s unaware and then he strikes and makes his kill
That’s the way you’ve done me girl you never let me breathe
Couldn’t feel the way I felt so you’d tried to punish me
Baby it’s time to straighten my mind

Waylon’s vocals are strong throughout this album and while there are a few dubious instrumentation choices, Waylon’s vocals are strong enough to salvage minor mistake. The album could use a few more up-tempo songs. I would rate this album in the B+/A- range – the substitution of a few faster songs and elimination of the organ would turn this into an A album.

Album Review: Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings – ‘Waylon & Willie’

waylon & willieNothing more typifies the Outlaw Movement in country music than the multi-artist compilation Wanted! The Outlaws in 1975. One of the singles from that album was a live version of ‘Good Hearted Woman’, written and sung by Willie with his good friend Waylon Jennings (who had already had a solo hit with the song). That #1 hit was followed a few years later by a full length duet album by the pair in 1978. In many ways it is quite an experimental modern sounding record, with the artists given full creative control. They produced the record together, and generally swap lead lines on most of the songs, with a handful of solos.

‘The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want To Get Over You)’ is one of those exceptions, with a solo vocal from Waylon. If it seems curious that this served as the album’s first single, it may be explained by the fact that the record was released on RCA, to which Waylon was still signed as a solo artist. It was written by soul songwriter/producer Chips Moman (who also wrote Waylon’s iconic ‘Luckenbach, Texas’). It’s not really a favourite of mine, more for the rather tinny sound of the eponymous instrument then for the song itself, which has quite a nice melancholic feel. It perched at the top of the Billboard country singles chart for two weeks.

The next single and another #1 hit was a genuine duet, and is much more to my taste. ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’, written by Ed Bruce and his wife Patsy, became a favourite live tune for the duo. The singalong chorus may sound celebratory, but the verses make this rather a wistful song about the complex characters of men drawn to the cowboy life, with an ironic undertone not dispelling the sense of a wearied honesty which imbues the song.

‘I Can Get Off On You’ is a quirky love song co-written by Waylon and Willie saying the woman in question is better than various drugs or alcohol. The cheerful laundry list of illegal substances the protagonist has clearly experienced in volume in the past might make this hard to get past radio gatekeepers nowadays, but things were more relaxed in some respects in the late 70s, and it was another chart-topper for the duo.

Willie’s solo version of the intense ‘If You Can Touch Her At All’ peaked at #5. The song, penned by Lee Clayton, is about a relationship with a woman by turns passionate and prudish. George Jones later covered it as a duet with Lynn Anderson, but it works better seen solely from the man’s standpoint.

A couple of the songs from Phases And Stages make an appearance here in duet versions. The travelling musician’s theme song ‘Pick Up The Tempo’ works well on this project, while ‘It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way’ is lovely. Also great, ‘A Couple More Years’ is an excellent serious song about maturity, written by Dennis Locorriere and Shel Silverstein. Both Willie and Waylon are at their best vocally here.

Waylon takes the lead on ‘Lookin’ For A Feeling’ which is a bit dull. Even more boring is ‘Gold Dust Woman’, a Fleetwood Mac cover sung by Waylon solo, without much melody. It was omitted from the first CD reissue of the album in 2002, along with two Kris Kristofferson songs. ‘Gold Dust Woman’ is no loss, and ‘The Year 2003 Minus 25’ with its apparently prescient depiction of a war with the Arabs over gas (presumably inspired by the repeated gas crises of the 70s) makes for uncomfortable listening.

However, the other Kristofferson song, ‘Don’t Cuss The Fiddle’, is much better – and also has a current day resonance with its message of tolerance towards fellow artists

I scandalized my brother
While admitting that he sang some pretty songs
I’d heard that he’d been scandalizing me
And, Lord, I knew that that was wrong
Now I’m lookin’ at it over something cool
and feelin’ fool enough to see
What I had called my brother on
Now he had every right to call on me

Don’t ever cuss that fiddle, boy
Unless you want that fiddle out of tune
That picker there in trouble, boy
Ain’t nothing but another side of you
If we ever get to heaven, boys
It ain’t because we ain’t done nothin’ wrong
We’re in this gig together
So let’s settle down and steal each other’s songs

I found a wounded brother
Drinkin’ bitterly away the afternoon
And soon enough he turned on me
Like he’d done every face in that saloon
Well, we cussed him to the ground
And said he couldn’t even steal a decent song
But soon as it was spoken
We was sad enough to wish that we were wrong

make sure you get the full length album including this song.

Amusingly they then throw in a few lines from Waylon and Willie’s hit duet ‘Good Hearted Woman’ as the track comes to an end.

The album was incredibly successful for the period, and has now been certified double platinum. Two less successful sequels, WWII and Take It To The Limit, emerged in 1982 and 1983 respectively, the former with Waylon at the fore, the latter focussing on Willie. But the first of their three duet records is by far the best.

Grade: A

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.

Country Heritage Redux: Mel Tillis

An updated and expanded version of an article previously published by The 9513.

“I figure we live in two worlds – public and private. It seems like I’ve got to prove myself in both all the time. I’ve got to climb mountains right to the top and then find new ones to climb. Whenever I finish writing a song, I always ask myself, “Well, Stutterin’ Boy, is that all you’ve got?’” — Mel Tillis

Introduction to Stutterin’ Boy – The Autobiography of Mel Tillis (1984)

“It seems like just yesterday that I left Florida head’n for Nashville, Tennessee in my ’49 Mercury with a busted windshield, a pregnant wife and $29.00 in my pocket. 2002 marks my 46th year in the music business. If I lost it all tomorrow, I guess I could say it only cost me $29.00 and it’s been one heck of a ride!”

From the biography on Tillis’ website.

Texas journalist and noted music critic John Morthland once described Mel Tillis as a journeyman country singer, intending it as praise. While he never quite reached the top echelon of country music stardom, he had a long and distinguished career as a singer and songwriter, writing many hits for other artists and having many hits of his own. His compositions continue to be performed and recorded today and he has left an additional legacy in the form of daughter Pam Tillis, an excellent singer in her own right, and Mel Tillis, Jr., who works mostly behind the scenes as a record producer.

Lonnie Melvin “Mel” Tillis was born in Tampa, Florida on August 8, 1932. His stutter developed during childhood, the result of a near-fatal bout with malaria. As a child, his family moved frequently around the Tampa area, but sometimes further as in the family’s 1940 move to Pahokee, FL, on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. In high school he learned to play drums, marching with the Pahokee High School Band. Later he would learn to play the guitar.

In late 1951 Tillis joined the United States Air Force. It was while in the Air Force that he started songwriting. One of his first songs was “Honky Tonk Song,” which became a major hit for Webb Pierce in 1957. While stationed in Okinawa, he played at local nightclubs with a band he formed called The Westerners.

After leaving the military in 1955, Tillis worked at various jobs. At some point he met Buck Peddy, who briefly served as his manager. Peddy and Tillis moved to Nashville in 1956. Initially unsuccessful at landing a writing deal, Tillis met Mae Boren Axton (writer of “Heartbreak Hotel”) who put in a good word for him with Jim Denny at Cedarwood Publishing. The first hit out of the box was “I’m Tired,” a song which was pitched to Ray Price. According to Tillis’ autobiography, Price wasn’t ready to issue a new single at the time the song was pitched to him by Buck Peddy but Webb Pierce heard the song and wanted it. Pierce only heard one of the verses so he had Wayne Walker write an additional verse and that’s the version that became the hit. Tillis only received a third of the royalties on this particular song, but it was a start. Unfortunately, it was also the start of a pattern; for the next few years he would suffer the addition of “co-writers” to most of his recorded songs, the chief culprits being Buck Peddy and Webb Pierce (a practice not uncommon at the time).

From this point forward a torrent of great songs flowed from his pen – over a thousand songs, of which over six hundred have been recorded by major artists. While it would take too long to list all of them, the following is a representative list of songs and artists:

•“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” (Johnny Darrell, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition)

•“Detroit City” (Billy Grammer, Bobby Bare)

•“Emotions” (Brenda Lee)

•“I Ain’t Never” (Webb Pierce)

•“Burning Memories” (Ray Price)

•“Thoughts Of A Fool” (George Strait)

•“Honey (Open That Door)” (Ricky Skaggs)

In 1958, Tillis finally secured a recording contract with a major label, landing on Columbia Records. That same year he had his first Top 40 hit, “The Violet And A Rose,” followed by the #27 hit “Sawmill.” Unfortunately, while he made many fine recordings for Columbia, his singing career failed to catch fire. His records mostly charted but there were no big hits. During this period other artists continued to record his songs, both as hit singles, and as album tracks. From Columbia, he moved to Decca from 1962-1964.

In 1966 he moved to Kapp Records where he made many noteworthy records. In fact his first recording for Kapp had him performing on a Bob Wills album. “Wine” finally cracked the Top 20 for Tillis (#15), followed by “Stateside” (#17), “Life Turned Her That Way” (#11), “Goodbye Wheeling” (#20), and finally in 1969 that elusive Top 10 record, “Who’s Julie” (#10). After “Who’s Julie” the hits came easier as “Old Faithful” (#15), “These Lonely Hands of Mine”(#9), “She’ll Be Hangin’ Around Somewhere” (#10), and “Heart Over Mind” (#3) followed in quick succession. The Kapp years also found Tillis becoming more of a presence on television, first as a regular on the Porter Wagoner Show, and later on the Glen Campbell Good-Time Hour. He also guested on various other television shows.

In 1970 Tillis moved to MGM where, in my humble opinion, he made his finest records. A long string of hits followed in “Heaven Everyday” (#5), “Too Lonely, Too Long” (#15), “Commercial Affection” (#8), “The Arms of a Fool” (#4), “Brand New Mister Me” (#8), “Untouched” (#14), “Would You Want the World to End” (#12, but #1 in several regional markets), and finally in 1972, a #1 record in “I Ain’t Never” (which had languished at #2 for nine consecutive weeks for Webb Pierce in 1959). He continued to record for MGM through 1975 where he scored two more #2s in a remake of “Sawmill” and “Midnight, Me and The Blues” and three more #3s in “Neon Rose,” “Stomp Them Grapes,” and “Memory Maker.”

Tillis left MGM for MCA in 1976 where the string of hits continued, albeit more heavily produced records with more strings, keyboards, and background singers and far less fiddle and steel guitar. The string of hits continued. He scored nine Top 10 records, including four #1 records in “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe In You,” and the infamous “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” At #2, “Send Me Down To Tucson” just missed reaching the top on Billboard. A switch to Elektra in late 1979 saw Tillis rack up five more Top 10 singles, including the 1981 #1 “Southern Rain,” but by the end of 1982 his run as a high charting artist was over. There was one last Top 10 record, “New Patches” (released on MCA in 1984). He continued to record for a few more years, releasing an album for RCA in 1985, but eventually he faded off the major labels except for reissues and compilations.

Tillis had about an 18 year run as a top charting artist. He won many BMI awards, including Songwriter of the Decade. In 1976 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame and that same year he was a surprise winner of the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year, beating out Waylon, Willie and Dolly for the honor. In June of 2001, he received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for three million broadcast performances of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” He received two long-overdue recognitions in 2007 as he was finally inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 (his daughter Pam performing the ceremony), and in October 2007 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Along the way Tillis recorded more than 60 albums with 36 top ten singles, appeared on numerous television shows, starred in several movies (Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Villain, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, Uphill All The Way and Every Which Way But Loose) as well as several television movies, including Murder in Music City and A Country Christmas Carol.

Although it has been more than two decades since Tillis was a regularly charting artist, he has been anything but quietly retired. In 1998, he combined with old friends Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed to record a two-album set, written entirely by another old friend, Shel Silverstein, titled Old Dogs (later condensed into a single disc). Also in 1998, he recorded his first gospel album titled Beyond The Sunset and served as spokesman and honorary chairman for the Stuttering Foundation of America. In recent years he has recorded a Christmas album and a comedy album.

He continues to tour occasionally and for years he had his own theater in Branson, MO (1994-2002). He has since sold the theater, but still appears there during the holidays. He records only occasionally and enjoys life. He is an avid fisherman. In February 2012 he received the National Medal of the Arts, presented to him by President Obama.

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25 Greatest Live Country Albums

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

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

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

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Pieces Of The Sky’

Emmylou Harris’s debut for Reprise was an artistic masterpiece which stands up well today. Recorded in LA with Canadian producer Brian Ahern, who Emmylou was to marry a few years later, it brought in the influences of the California country-rock scene in which Emmylou had been immersed during her time with Gram Parsons, fusing them with some very traditional music. The musicians included Herb Pedersen (later a member of the Desert Rose Band) as the principal harmony singer, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon playing a variety of instruments, soon-to-be Hot Band members James Burton and Glen D Hardin, and Fayssoux Starling, wife of John Starling of the bluegrass group The Seldom Scene as the main female harmony voice. Emmylou herself played acoustic guitar on a number of tracks.

Her first country single was the beautiful lost love ballad ‘Too Far Gone’. Written by Billy Sherrill and given a delicate string arrangement reminiscent of his work with Tammy Wynette (who had also recorded the song), it failed to make any inroads for Emmylou despite an intense yet understated performance imbued with anguish. It was re-released in 1978 to promote the compilation Profile, and then reached #13.

Gram Parsons had introduced Emmylou to the music and perfect harmonies of the Louvin Brothers, and a sparkling reading of their ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ was her first big hit, peaking at #4 on Billboard. Pedersen plays banjo here as well as supplying perfect harmonies, making this a true classic recording which stands up to the original.

Emmylou herself wrote just one song, the exquisitely beautiful ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, reflecting on her grief for the death of Gram Parsons. With echoes of gospel in the lyrics and folk in the melody (supplied by co-writer Bill Danoff) and arrangement, Emmylou provides a worthy tribute to her mentor which exudes sorrow. Perhaps in another tribute to their work together, she also covered the Everly Brothers’ ‘Sleepless Nights’ (a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song most recently revived by Patty Loveless), which she had previously cut with Gram for their second album together, Grievous Angel, but which had been omitted from the final version.

It was still common practice in the 1970s for artists to cover recent hits. Emmylou picked Dolly Parton’s autobiographical ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ (a hit for her in 1971), and this tenderly sung version with its mainly acoustic backing and the angelic harmonies of Fayssoux Starling, is convincing even though her own background was far from the rural poverty which inspired the song. She also sounds beautiful if mournful on the Beatles’ ‘For No One’.

It wasn’t all delicate ballads. The good-tempered mid-tempo wailed drinking song ‘Bluebird Wine’ which opens the album is actually my least favorite track vocally, but gets things off to a sparkling start instrumentally. It is notable as the first ever cut for the then-unknown Rodney Crowell, who Emmylou was soon to ask to join the Hot Band. There are committed honky tonk numbers in a spunky cover of Merle Haggard’s broken hearted ‘Bottle Let Me Down’ with Leadon and Pedersen singing backing, although this doesn’t quite match up to the original. Emmylou also sang the definitive version of Shel Silverstein’s sympathetic (even triumphant) portrait of a faded honky tonk angel he calls the ‘Queen Of The Silver Dollar’ (previously recorded by Dr Hook and a hit for Dave & Sugar in 1976). Linda Ronstadt and Herb Pedersen sang harmony on Emmylou’s version.

Another future Hot Band Member, Ricky Skaggs, guests on fiddle on ‘Queen Of the Silver Dollar’, and fiddle and viola on ‘Before Believing’, a pretty acoustic ballad with a folky feel, written by Danny Flowers. Emmylou’s boyfriend at the time, Tom Guidera, plays bass on these two tracks. The latter provides the album title:

How would you feel if the world was falling apart all around you
Pieces of the sky falling on your neighbor’s yard but not on you

The album sold well, reaching #7 on the country albums chart, and was eventually certified hold. It has been rereleased on CD, both with the original track listing and in 2004 with two additional songs, ‘Hank And Lefty (Raised My Country Soul)’, which had been a minor hit for the African-American country singer Stoney Edwards a few years earlier, and ‘California Cottonfields’ (a Haggard album cut written by Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery)). Both are fine songs well performed by Emmylou, and it is well worth seeking out this version for those songs (or downloading them individually if you already have the album).

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

It really is tempting fate for any artist, particularly one who is past his or her commercial peak, to entitle an album Better Than I Used To Be, because (almost always) it begs a negative answer. Rich-voiced 90s star Sammy Kershaw has been away from the charts for a while, most recently concentrating on a venture into Louisiana state politics. His new album is on an independent (possibly self released) label, Big Hit Records. However, while I don’t think Sammy’s music is “better than it used to be”, the new album stands up pretty well against his back catalog. There are no obvious hit singles here, but Sammy is still in fine voice, and Buddy Cannon’s supportive production is excellent, and undoubtedly country.

The album is bookended by songs Sammy himself had a share in writing. The unremarkable but energetic ‘That Train’, which he wrote alone, opens the album. In an interview with the 9513 earlier this year, Sammy admitted:

“I’m not much of a songwriter but every once in a while I get lucky and write one in 10 or 15 minutes. If it goes any longer than that, I get rid of them. I never work on them again”

Frankly, this song does indeed sound as though it only took a few minutes to write, although it clearly inspired the cover art. Much better is the co-write with John Scott Sherrill and Scotty Emerick which closes the set. ‘Takin’ The Long Way Home’ places the protagonist in a bar, because he has too little to go home for, with a woman who’s obviously on her way out. The sweet sadness of the fiddle line underscores the delicately understated emotion of a man who has no remedy for his sense of abandonment, as he concludes at the end of the evening,

And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m takin’ the long way home

However rash it may be as the title track, ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, is a highlight of the record. It is a tender, even inspiring, promise from a man who has made mistakes in the past and is in the process of turning his life around:

I can’t count the people I’ve let down
Or the hearts I’ve broke
You aint gotta dig too deep
If you want to find some dirt on me
I’m learning who you’ve been
Ain’t who you’ve gotta be…

Standin’ in the rain so long
Has left me with a little rust
But put some faith in me
Someday you’ll see
There’s a diamond under all this dust

But he acknowledges this is a work in progress in this lovely, mature song. A video was made to support this song as a single earlier this year, and it is a shame it failed to make many waves.

Equally good is the subdued sadness of ‘Like I Wasn’t Even There’, written by Wes Hightower, Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy. The protagonist runs into his ex for the first time since the breakup, and is ignored as though their relationship never existed.

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Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Outlaw’

His fourteenth studio release finds Mark Chesnutt joining the ranks of many other artists who have released a covers album in the past two years or so. As the title suggests, Mark’s offering is a tribute to the Outlaw movement, paying tribute to the likes of Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and borrowing heavily from the catalog of Waylon Jennings, in particular. Covering classic songs is an endeavor fraught with peril; comparisons with the original versions is inevitable. Deviating from the original version too much can alienate longtime fans, while sticking too close to the original leads to charges of not making the song one’s own. Though there are a few missteps along the way, Chesnutt largely succeeds in bringing these vintage songs back to life.

Hank Williams Jr. is a difficult artist to cover, since much of his material is autobiographical in nature. Two Bocephus songs — “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Country State of Mind” — appear here, and Chesnutt sings both of them with gusto, sounding as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself. He tackles David Allan Coe’s “A Little Time Off For Good Behavior” with equal relish, and Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” is also an enjoyable listen.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Mark’s take on the Kris Kristofferson classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. Johnny Cash’s definitive recording of one of the very best country songs ever written, simply cannot be topped. Chesnutt seems to realize this and unfortunately at times this seems like a phoned-in performance. His delivery lacks emotion and does not convincingly convey the feeling of loneliness and angst that the lyrics are trying to express. In additon, Pete Anderson’s production tends to get in the way. The accordian, presumably played by Flaco Jiminez, seems a bit out of place as does the organ that is meant to underscore the lyrics in the third verse about the hymns coming from a Sunday school. The overall result is a song that just plods along for nearly five minutes and made me wish I’d just listened to Cash’s version instead.

Also disappointing is Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” A minor hit for The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) in 1985, it was also recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and David Allan Coe. It tells the story of a relationship between a relatively young man and a much older one. It starts out well enough, but about halfway through the production begins to drown out the vocals.

Half of the songs on the album are remakes of Waylon Jennings hits, so at times, Outlaw seems more of a Jennings tribute album than a salute to the Outlaw movement in general. Since Chesnutt is a huge Jennings fan, and even named his eldest son Waylon, this is not entirely unexpected. At times it’s hard to take Mark seriously as an outlaw, unlike Waylon who actually lived through much of what he sang about, but for the most part the Jennings covers work well. He wisely avoids some of Waylon’s better known material such as “Luchenbach, Texas” and “Just To Satisfy You” opting instead to cover some lesser-known gems such as “Black Rose” and “Freedom To Stay”.

“A Couple More Years”, written by Dennis Locorriere and Shel Silverstein, and previously recorded by both Jennings and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, is by far the best song on the album. Chesnutt is joined by Amber Digby on this one, and though lyrically it makes for a somewhat awkward duet — they each sing to each other, “I’ve got a couple more years on you babe, and that’s all” — the vocal peformances by Chesnutt and Digby more than compensate for this lack of logic. Another highlight of the album is “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”. This seems like the type of song that might have been a hit if it had been released during Mark’s MCA years, though the chances that radio will play this song now are slim. It is however, an example of Mark Chesnutt at his best; on this track he truly shines.

I’m not sure that there’s much on Outlaw to appeal to casual fans, but longtime Mark Chesnutt fans will want to seek it out. It will be released on June 22 on the Saguaro Road label. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Rated X’

A country song discussing the double standards of sexuality in gender roles wouldn’t be a novel concept today, but it sure was in 1972.  Coming on the back of the Feminist and Civil Right movements of the mid to late 60s, many of Loretta Lynn’s lyrics were anthems of empowerment for the modern women of the time.  Perhaps none were more direct in their questioning of the status quo than the self-penned ‘Rated X’.

Released as the only single from her 1973 album, Entertainer of the Year, sent out after Loretta became the first woman to ever win the CMA’s coveted trophy, ‘Rated X’ would find itself banned by a handful of country stations.  But like many of Lynn’s earlier banned hits, the controversy only helped to propel the song up the charts all the way to the top, and the talk even sold a few records.

A snappy steel guitar lick opens the song as Loretta launches into her sermon on a woman’s treatment in society.  Here, she’s speaking of divorced women.  The general public thinks of her as an easy woman; just because she’s loved before she must be ready for more.  Loretta’s spit fire delivery tells her disdain for the system as she sings:

And if you’re rated X you’re some kind of goal even men turning silver try to make
But I think it’s wrong to judge every picture if a cheap camera makes a mistake

Whether she knows it or not, today’s modern woman owes a great debt of gratitude to Loretta Lynn and her trailblazing efforts.

Grade: A-

‘Rated X’ is available as a digital download from amazon and other retailers.

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Greatest Hits Vol. II’

We’re continuing our survey of Loretta’s career with her second installment of Greatest Hits, released in 1974, and covering her career from 1968 to 1973. Although this compilation covers only some of her hits over this period, and misses out the controversial divorcee-themed ‘Rated X’, it is a good overview of her career in those years, arguably her artistic and commercial peak. She tended to release only one or two singles per album throughout the 1960s and ’70s, but they were usually by far the best songs.

The earliest hit here is ‘Fist City’, another in Loretta’s string of feisty songs inspired by real incidents, in this case addressed to a woman who had been making moves on Loretta’s husband while she was working. Its attitude is more confrontational than the similarly themed ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’ a couple of years earlier – perhaps because it was more personally inspired. Loretta tackles the woman head-on to threaten her with physical violence if she doesn’t back off:

You’ve been a’makin’ your brags around town that you’ve been a-lovin’ my man
But the man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can
And that’s what you look like to me, and what I see’s a pity
You’d better close your face and stay out of my way
If you don’t wanna go to Fist City

It was Loretta’s second #1, hitting the top in May 1968. Later that year she had a #3 hit with ‘Your Squaw Is On the Warpath’, an idea inspired by her half-Cherokee mother when fighting with Loretta’s father. Apart from the use of Native American imagery and a haunting the lyric is actually a typical example of Loretta’s wronged wife and mother refusing to lie down and take it when her cheating husband comes home drunk expecting a loving welcome. The lyrics might fall foul of political correctness these days, although Loretta has spoken about her pride in, and identification with, this side of her heritage; the album cover with Loretta in Native American costume (pictured left) certainly would be seen as offensive today, although there is absolutely no doubt Loretta intended nothing of the kind. The Jordanaires provided backing vocals on many of Loretta’s recordings, but rarely as prominently as on this track. Incidentally she chose to cover Hank Williams’ ‘Kaw-Liga’ on the same album.

The following year’s ‘Wings Upon Your Horns’, which was relatively unsuccessful, only reaching #11 on Billboard, was written by Loretta with her sister Peggy Sue, an aspiring singer herself. It is the first-person tale of a scarlet woman, once an innocent young country girl seduced under promise of marriage. She accuses her devil-like lover:

You hung my wings up on your horns
And turned my halo into thorns
And turned me into a woman I can’t stand

The autobiographical ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, which is probably Loretta’s signature song thanks in part to the book and film of the same title a decade later, was a #1 hit in 1970. It originally had twelve verses, which Loretta had to cut down for the recorded version. Intensely honest, this song graphically depicts the poverty in which Loretta grew up, tempered by the love of her parents. The song ends with a nostalgic return to see the ruins of their old cabin; nothing but the floor, and Loretta’s memories survive. But this environment has been preserved for posterity in this song. Like Dolly Parton’s memorialization of her ‘Tennessee Mountain Home’, this is not merely entertainment, or even art, although it is both; it is also oral history at its finest.

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