My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Shelby Singleton

Johnny Cash: A Look Back

We lost Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash within months of each other back in 2003, so 2018 marks a very sad 15th-anniversary farewell to the “Man In Black”.

The release last year of UNEARTHED, a nine album 180 gram vinyl box set (originally released on CD two months after his death) of unreleased tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, (it features some interesting pairings such as Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and the late Joe Strummer’s duets with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) provides us with a excuse to take another look back at his career.

While modern country radio has no use for the likes of Johnny Cash, preferring more commercial fodder, other sections of the music industry have kept his music alive, whether on Willie’s Roadhouse (Sirius XM Radio) or through the musical press. Cover bands continue to play his music and while younger so-called country singers play music that bears little connection to country music, his music remains a staple of Roots-Rock, Texas Red-Dirt and Bluegrass performers

Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.

Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.

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My reissues wish list – part 1: Kapp, Mercury and Plantation/Sun

portergibson

roger millerIt should be no surprise to anyone that my tastes in country music run very traditional. While much of the music of the “New Traditionalists” movement of 1986-1999 remains available, as it should since it was digitally recorded, the music of the “Old Traditionalists (roughly 1925-1975) is another story.

When radio converted to digital starting in 1986, most radio stations, particularly FM stations, refused to play anything that was not on compact disc. As a result, a country oldie to these stations meant Alabama, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers (artists whose back catalogue made it to digital formats) while the likes of such superstars as Charley Pride, Sonny James, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce were lost to posterity.

Over time, the older country music began to be available, although often the availability was that of a four plus discs sets from Bear Family that was decidedly overkill for all but the most diehard fans. I am not knocking Bear, which in recent years has begun to issue some single disc collections. The Bear sets are as good as humanly imaginable, terrific sound, fabulous books and many of the discs have 85-87 minutes of music. They are great, but they run $22-$25 per disc.

Eventually more reissue labels emerged, mostly in Europe where the copyright laws had copyright protection lapse after fifty years. This changed recently to 70 years resulting in slowdown in reissues. I think recordings made in 1963 or later have the new 70 year copyright protection.

American record labels started to mine their back catalogues after 1991, but generally only for their biggest stars. A number of decent box sets have been issued, but again, only on the biggest stars.

Enough with my complaining – let’s start with a couple of relatively minor labels, in the first of a new series.

KAPP RECORDS

Kapp was a minor label that was eventually purchased by MCA. The biggest star on the label was pop balladeer Jack Jones, truly a fine singer. In the world of country music it was more of a launching pad for new artists and a resting place for over-the-hill singers.

Bobby Helms (“My Special Angel” & “Fraulein“) was on the label after his pop success waned. One could put together a nice CD of his Kapp recordings.

After many years of knocking about, Freddie Hart landed on Kapp. While I regard Freddie’s Kapp material as his best, he really had no big hits. Eventually Hart landed at Capital where “Easy Loving” made him an ‘overnight’ star. Kapp issued six albums on Freddie Hart, plus a hits collection. The six studio albums probably could fit on a nice two CD set

Mel Tillis released nine albums (plus two hit collections) while on Kapp. It’s not his best material but there were some classic songs (“Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” / “Something Special” / “All Right (I’ll Sign The Papers)” / “Who’s Julie” / “Goodbye Wheeling” / “Life Turned Her That Way” / “Stateside“/ “Heart Over Mind“) that were as good as anything he ever recorded elsewhere, A nice set with about sixty songs would suffice.

Ernest Tubb was sure that Cal Smith would be a star someday. Someday was about six years later. Meanwhile Kapp released seven albums plus a hits collection on Cal. One of Cal’s Kapp hits (“Drinking Champagne” would be a big hit for George Strait many years later. After a long wait, a decent collection of Cal’s MCA/Decca hit eventually emerged but none of his Kapp classics are available. Cal had some really good songs including “Drinking Champagne”, “You Can’t Housebreak A Tomcat“, “Destination Atlanta G.A“, and “Heaven Is Just A Touch Away“.

MERCURY RECORDS

Foreign labels have done a good job of getting Jerry Lee Lewis and Tom T. Hall back into circulation, but Dave Dudley and Roy Drusky have been badly neglected. Mercury had an additional label, Smash, but artists occasionally moved from Smash to Mercury in midstream.

Mercury released eighteen albums plus three hits collections on Dave Dudley and all we have available is one stinking CD collection with twelve songs on it, two of the tracks being remakes of “Six Days On The Road” and “Cowboy Boots”. Dave had thirty-one chart hits for Mercury. C’mon, if nothing else a nice two CD set with the thirty-one chart hits plus some key album cuts. The King of The Truckers deserves no less – so beloved by truck drivers was Dave that the Teamsters Union gave Dave a gold union membership card.

Roy Drusky was a smooth voiced balladeer who had over forty chart records, eight with Decca and thirty two with Mercury. Same comment applies to Ray as applies to Dave Dudley – a nice two disc set is needed.

Roger Miller may have been the most talented performer to ever record in the country music genre. Roger barely even need a guitar to keep folks entertained. Back in 1991 & 1992 Polygram (the label that purchased Mercury ) issued a pair of two twenty song CDs, one featuring songs Roger wrote that were hits for other artist and the other featuring Roger’s hits. Eventually a modest boxed set was issued, but those are long out of print. Although they were good efforts, Roger’s albums deserve to be reissued intact.

PLANTATION/SUN INTERNATIONAL

During the late 1960s – early 1970s, Plantation became kind of an old folks’ home for country artists on the way down. Many a fading star re-recorded their greatest hits for label owner Shelby Singleton. For many of these older artists, it was the only way for them to keep their music available for their fans. Webb Pierce, Jimmie Davis, Jimmy C. Newman, Hank Locklin, Charlie Walker, Kitty Wells, Dave Dudley and Roy Drusky were among the artists that had twenty song cassettes issued, and for some artists, there was some new material recorded. I don’t think Plantation has much more than thirty or so songs recorded for these veteran artists (except Webb Pierce), so they should just take everything they have on a given artist and issue a CD. True, the original recording were better but all of these recordings were at least decent.

I do not pretend that this is an exhaustive list as there are many more artists whose artistry justifies more than is currently available. I noticed that Country Universe recently posted a Wish List segment on their Daily Top Five Feature. This series was not inspired by their article as I had this nearly completed before they posted their feature.

Spotlight Artist: Tom T. Hall

tom t hallSongs that told a story were once a staple of country music, unlike the majority of today’s songs which seems to celebrate beer, girls and pickup trucks without there being much point to it.

Think of the country songs that have endured from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – “PT 109”, “Big Bad John”, “El Paso”, “Sink The Bismarck”, “The Battle of New Orleans”, “Cross The Brazos At Waco”, “Wreck On The Highway”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and countless others. They weren’t just lyrics slapped together – they had something specific to say. While not every song was a story song, many of them were and they were among the most memorable songs of Country Music’s ‘Golden Age’ (roughly 1948-1975).

Even by the standards of Country Music’s ‘Golden Age’ our May Spotlight Artist, Tom T. Hall was unique. It is one thing to tell the story of great historical events (real or imagined) or of heroic figures such as soldiers and cowboys. It is something entirely different to tell the story of everyday people and make their stories seem interesting.

Tom T Hall wrote about waitresses, grave diggers, bluesmen, guitar pickers, fathers and blind children, wonder horses, people with two left feet, janitors, factory workers, single mothers wearing miniskirts, cheap motels, odd and/or deranged people, army experiences, and oh so many more, making their stories pop off your record player and into your conscience.

Thomas Hall was born on May 25, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky. Solid biographical information on Hall is scarce as he has kept his personal life as private as possible. It is known that as a teenager, Hall organized a band called the Kentucky Travelers that performed before movies for a traveling theater. The band had some success, recording a number of songs, although Tom doesn’t appear on any of the recordings, having left the band to join the Army in 1957. He was stationed in Germany at the same time as Elvis Presley, and remembers that Elvis would buy hamburgers for the entire platoon on the day before payday. While in Germany he performed on Armed Forces Radio Network. His army experiences served as the inspiration of several of his later songs. After leaving the army in 1961 Hall served as an announcer or disk jockey for several radio stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as performing live and writing songs.

A friend of Hall’s took some of Tom’s songs to Nashville with him, where they came to the attention of Jimmy Keys, the head of Newkeys Music, a company co-owned with Jimmy “C” Newman and Dave Dudley. Keys saw something there as he forwarded “D.J. For A Day” to Jimmy “C” Newman and offered Hall a draw against royalties to move to Nashville and become a staff writer. Newman’s recording of “D.J. For A Day” reached #9 in early 1964 becoming Newman’s first top ten recording in nearly four years. Newman was to record many more of Tom’s songs.

To augment his songwriting income, Hall went on the road with Dave Dudley. The two of them became good friends and before long, Hall was co-writing with Dudley and also giving Dudley first crack at his new solo compositions. Among the many hits Dave Dudley had with Tom T compositions were “Mad” (#6), “What We’re Fighting For” (#4), “There Ain’t No Easy Runs” (#10) and Dave’s sole #1 record “The Pool Shark”.

In 1965 Hall caught two big breaks as a songwriter when Johnny Wright took “Hello Vietnam” to #1, the first Tom Hall composition to reach #1. At approximately the same time, the Statler Brothers recorded “Billy Christian” a song which few remember but which sold millions of copies. “Billy Christian” was a fine song but it was the B-side of the record; however, the A-side, “Flowers On The Wall” kick-started the Statler Brothers recording career and provided Hall with substantial songwriting royalties.

In 1967, after several years of Hall supplying songs for other artists, Jimmy Keys thought it was time for Tom Hall to start recording his own songs. Tom had served as his own demo singer and Keys approached Mercury producer Jerry Kennedy with the idea of signing Hall to Mercury Records. Feeling that “Tom Hall” lacked oomph as a stage name, Keys relabeled Tom as “Tom T. Hall”.

The first few Tom T. Hall recordings were modest hits but before Tom T could score a big hit on his own, a song that Tom T. had written for Margie Singleton, the ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (Jerry Kennedy’s boss at Mercury), made a huge splash on the pop and country throughout the English speaking world. The song lay idle for a few years before Shelby Singleton, by then the owner of Plantation Records , had Jeannie C. Riley record “Harper Valley PTA”. Jerry Kennedy played dobro on the record, which would sell over six million copies, and won both a Grammy Award and CMA award for the singer.

Hot on the heels of “Harper Valley PTA, Tom T would have his first top ten recording as a recording artist when “Ballad of Forty Dollars” reached #4 in early 1969. This would kick off a solid string of top twenty hits that would run through 1980.

During his years on Mercury Tom T. Hall’s albums were more than merely collections of songs, they were slices of life set to music, telling the stories of everyday people doing the various things that people do. There were songs about winners, losers, and eccentrics, about situations mundane, heroic, ridiculous and implausible. People who bought the albums wore them out from frequent playing and absorbed the lyrics of the songs and the stories as if by osmosis.

Tom T. Hall, being from rural Kentucky, had grown up with and loved bluegrass music. Some of his album tracks had a bluegrass feel to them, and in 1976 Tom T came out of the bluegrass closet and released The Magnificent Music Machine, a collection of some originals cast as bluegrass, some classic bluegrass standards, and one rock song, “Fox On The Run” which had been a late 60s pop hit in England for Manfred Mann.

As far as mainstream country fans are concerned, Tom T Hall is a nearly forgotten figure who has been inactive for many years. While it is true that he took an extended hiatus from performing, in recent years Tom T Hall has emerged as a very active bluegrass songwriter, usually with his wife Dixie. Tom and Dixie record occasionally, perform rarely but supply a seemingly endless supply of hit records for many bluegrass artists. The most recent issue of Bluegrass Unlimited (April 2014) shows Hall as having three songs in the Bluegrass Top 30 – “I’m Putting On My Leaving Shoes” (#1 as recorded by Big Country Bluegrass), “That’s Kentucky (#7 By Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road), and “I Want My Dog Back” (#12 by The Spinney Brothers).

Tom T Hall was inducted to the country music Hall of Fame in 2008, an honor long overdue. In his career charted fifty-four songs, ten reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World charts. Along the way he won numerous BMI songwriting awards, hosted a syndicated television, made numerous appearances on network television shows ands made millions of people reflect and smile as a result of his keen eye for detail and ability to fit it into songs that told many small truths about you and your friends and your neighbors.

In celebration of his 78th birthday, we present to you May’s Spotlight Artist, “The Storyteller” – Tom T Hall.

Country Heritage: Jeannie C. Riley

Jeannie C Riley

I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
She said mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA

– Tom T. Hall – 1967

Starting out at the top may not be a good thing. After all, there is no place to go but down. For 23 year-old Jeannie C. Riley, the top of the mountain was reached in August 1968, when “Harper Valley PTA” jumped from No. 81 to No. 1 on the Billboard (all-genres) singles chart. It subsequently reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart and charted in a number of countries around the world (reaching No. 12 in the UK). Jeannie became the first female country singer to simultaneously top the pop and country charts and she won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Single of the Year award.

Born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson in Stamford, Texas, to Oscar Stephenson, an auto mechanic, and Nora Stephenson, a nurse, and raised in Anson, Texas, Jeannie developed a strong love for country music as a young girl. As a teenager, she made her first public performances, appearing with her uncle Johnny Moore at Jones County Jamboree in nearby Truby, Texas. On December 20, 1962, shortly after high school graduation, she married childhood sweetheart Mickey Riley. Uncle Johnny took Jeannie and Mickey with him on one of his trips to Nashville, which intensified her desire to be a star in Nashville. Along the way she received encouragement from Weldon Myrick, a one-time member of the Jones County Jamboree, who had since become one of the Nashville’s leading steel guitar players.

Mickey and Jeannie had their first child, Kim Michelle Riley, on January 11, 1966. In August of that year, she and Mickey packed their belongings and moved to Nashville, where she worked as a secretary at Passkey Music. She made a few demo records along the way (under the name Jean Riley) and issued a single, “What About Them,” which failed to chart. Among the unreleased recordings, were some demos that were recorded for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ records.

Enter “Harper Valley PTA”. Veteran country singer Margie Singleton, ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (previously associated with Mercury Records), asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to “Ode To Billie Joe,” which she had recorded the previous year. Ever observant, Tom T. noted the name of Harpeth Valley Elementary School while driving through Bellevue, TN. In short order, he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” about a fictional confrontation between a young widow, Stella Johnson, and a local PTA group who objected to her clothing, social drinking and friendliness with the town’s gentlemen. Tom T. Hall’s “talking blues man” demo was not quite geared to Margie Singleton’s style, but what Shelby Singleton saw in the song wasn’t quite up Margie’s alley, either.

Meanwhile, Jeannie had cut a demo of a song written by Royce Clark called “The Old Town Drunk” about a town drunk whose coat had washed up on the banks of the river and watched his own funeral service, then mocked the townsfolk at the end of the service. Remembering the demo and the singer, Shelby rushed the apprehensive Jeannie into the recording studio to record the song on his newly formed Plantation Records. “Harper Valley PTA” was the only the third single ever released on the new label (the Harper Valley PTA album was the first album issued by the label, as well). Jeannie had significant misgivings about recording the song, which she felt was not country enough to establish her as a country singer. She also had misgivings about being paraded about in miniskirts, and apparently hasn’t worn one since leaving Plantation.

Jeannie continued to have success after “Harper Valley PTA,” although nothing ever approached the heights of Tom T. Hall’s classic song. Jeannie made her Opry debut later in 1968 and the immediate follow up, “The Girl Most Likely,” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Country charts (it reached No. 1 on the Cashbox Country chart). Virtually all of her Plantation recordings attempted to capitalize on the feisty Harper Valley PTA persona – a persona which was actually alien to her true personality. Through 1971, she continued to record for Plantation records, scoring a number of minor hits, as well as five other Top Ten singles, including “Country Girl,” “Oh, Singer” and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife.” The sudden fame took a toll on her marriage and she and Mickey Riley divorced in 1970.

She left Plantation in 1971 to record for MGM where she was promised more artistic freedom. The four albums she recorded for MGM found her cast as a more traditional country singer. While her chart success was minimal, much of this material was excellent. The two biggest hits at MGM, both from 1972, were “Give Myself A Party” at No. 12 (No. 5 Cashbox) and “Good Morning Country Rain” at No. 30, the latter of which was her last top 40 single.

In 1974, Jeannie found religion and turned her attention more toward gospel music, although she recorded some secular music for MCA/Dot thereafter. Jeannie and Mickey remarried and Jeannie’s autobiography, From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top, was published in 1980, with a gospel album of the same name issued at that time.

The years after 1980 were difficult for Ms Riley, who was reported as suffering from long-term clinical depression. In 1994, Jeannie’s family had her committed to a hospital for evaluation after she fell into a deep depression. She and husband Mickey again divorced. At some point she received the appropriate treatment and pulled her life back together.
There is an active website for Jeannie C. Riley but it does not list any tour dates so I am not sure if she is actively performing. Her daughter, Kim Michelle Riley, recorded an album under the name Riley Coyle in 1993 which featured the song “Country In My Genes,” which Loretta Lynn had some success with a few years later. Jeannie sang with her daughter on one of the tracks on the album. Jeannie also appeared as a guest on the Tommy Cash album Let An Old Racehorse Run in 1994. Both albums were on the Playback label. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: The Storyteller, Tom T. Hall

If Tom T. Hall had never had a hit record for himself, he would be still an important figure in the history of country music. “Harper Valley PTA” alone, would have been enough to ensure him at least a footnote in the history of the genre, but long before that song became a world-wide hit, Tom T. Hall was influencing the direction of country music.

I first became aware of Tom T. Hall through my father’s collection of Dave Dudley and Jimmie C. Newman albums. All of Dave Dudley’s Mercury albums except Travelin’ With Dave Dudley (a cover album of older country songs) contain at least one song written or co-written by Tom T. Hall and you could put together a “best of ” collection for Dave Dudley comprised of nothing but songs written or co-written by Tom T. Hall. As much as any writer, the songs of Tom T. Hall helped define the sub-genre of truck driving music – and he’s not even particularly known for it!

Thomas Hall was born May 25, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky (The “T “ was added later in life to give his name a more distinctive ring). Solid biographical information on Hall is scarce as he has kept his personal life as private as possible. It is known that as a teenager, Hall organized a band called the Kentucky Travelers that performed before movies for a traveling theater. In 1957 Hall entered the Army for a four-year hitch. He was stationed in Germany at the same time as Elvis Presley, and remembers that Elvis would buy hamburgers for the entire platoon on the day before payday. While in Germany he performed on Armed Forces Radio Network. His army experiences served as the inspiration of several of his later songs. After leaving the army in 1961, Hall served as an announcer or disc jockey for several radio stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as performing live and writing songs.

A friend of Hall’s took some of Tom’s songs to Nashville with him, where they came to the attention of Jimmy Keys, the head of Newkeys Music, a company co-owned with Jimmy “C” Newman and Dave Dudley. Keys saw something there as he forwarded “D.J. For A Day” to Jimmy “C” Newman and offered Hall a draw against royalties to move to Nashville and become a staff writer. Newman’s recording of “D.J. For A Day” reached #9 in early 1964, becoming Newman’s first top ten recording in nearly four years. Newman was to record many more of Tom’s songs. Read more of this post