My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Skeets McDonald

Classic Rewind: Skeets McDonald – ‘What A Lonesome Life It’s Been’

Album Review: Barbara Mandrell – ‘This Time I Almost Made It: The Lost Columbia Masters’

81U+RipV8TL._SX522_More than any other performer, Barbara Mandrell is the artist responsible for sparking my interest in country music. Even before there were any local country music radio stations in my area, her weekly TV series was my main source of keeping abreast of what was going on in the world of country music. This was in the early 80s, when she’d just become the first artist to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award a second time. Her contributions to country music were significant, but her catalog has been criminally neglected. Fortunately, that grievance is starting to be addressed. With the reissue of This Time I Almost Made It, courtesy of Real Gone Music, all of Barbara’s solo albums for Columbia are now available on CD.

Barbara was signed to Columbia in 1969 by Billy Sherrill and remained with the label until 1975. During that time, she only released three solo albums, plus a duets album with David Houston. Most major country acts released three albums a year in those days, but like we often see today, the label was waiting for some radio hits before committing to album releases. Her debut album Treat Him Right, was released in 1971 and was a lackluster seller. 1973’s The Midnight Oil reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, buoyed by the success of the title track which reached #7 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home”, which was Barbara’s first Top 10 hit. By the time This Time I Almost Made It was released in 1974, the momentum she had gained seemed to have been lost again; it only reached #41 on the albums chart. By that time, Barbara might have already initiated talks to negotiate her release from her Columbia contract. If so, the label obviously would have had little interest in promoting her records. At any rate, the quality of the material does not seem to have been the issue.

The title track was written by Sherrill when he realized that they didn’t have enough songs for an album. Though in some respects it may have been an afterthought, it is my favorite track on the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, not particularly country in arrangement but the production is tastefully restrained. It was released as a single in advance of the album, as a follow-up to “The Midnight Oil”, but it charted outside the Top 10 at #12. The second single was “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home”, another easy-listening style ballad, although it is a little more country thanks to the inclusion of some steel guitar. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one, but I like it a lot. The background vocals give it a slightly dated feel, though they are a lot less intrusive than many records of the era. This one stalled at #39 and was Barbara’s final single for Columbia.

Barbara is well known for making country versions of R&B songs, occasionally delving too far into R&B territory for my taste in later years but her take on “You’re All I Need to Get By”, which has been a 1968 R&B hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, is quite good. She also turned in good performances on some pop songs of the day: “Keep On Singing”, which had been a hit for Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees’ “Words”, and The Beatles’ “Something”, which closes out the original album. She also covered her country colleagues Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and Charlie Rich (“A Very Special Love Song”).

This CD would be worth buying for the original album alone, but Real Gone Music has included almost another album’s worth of bonus tracks. There are nine in total, seven of which have never been released before. First up is the very country “I Hope You Love Me”, which was recorded during Barbara’s first session with Columbia in 1969. Written by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was included on Tammy’s 1970 album The Ways To Love a Man under the title “I Know”. “You Can Always Come Back”, also recorded in 1969 is a cover of a Curly Putman hit. “Coming Home Solider” had been a 1966 pop hit for Bobby Vinton.

Though the album’s liner notes refer to Barbara’s version as “dramatic”, I found it a bit plodding and it’s my least favorite track on the disc. Although a bit tame, her reading of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” is much better. It was written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who had hired Barbara for a two-week stint in Las Vegas when she was only eleven years old. It’s proof positive that despite her reputation for interpreting pop and R&B material, she was just as adept at tackling traditional country. Ditto for “You Took Him Off My Hands”, a Wynn Stewart/Harlan Howard/Skeets McDonald song that had previously been recorded by Patsy Cline.

Though not one a landmark album in the Mandrell discography, This Time I Almost Made It provides an interesting opportunity to trace Barbara’s development as an artist, and the bonus material is a real treat for her fans. After leaving Columbia, Barbara signed with ABC/Dot, which was later absorbed by MCA. That era of her career, despite being the years of her greatest commercial success, is still largely unavailable on CD aside from a few hits compilations. Hopefully the sales of This Time I Almost Made It will be good enough to entice Universal to finally allowing some of Barbara’s most commercially important recordings a chance to once again see the light of day.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

honky tonk crazyOne of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.

The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:

I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong

I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone

Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.

The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:

My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain

‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:

I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name

When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace

God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do

In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.

‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.

‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.

‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.

The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:

There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine

After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.

This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Skeets McDonald – ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’

Week ending 1/12/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

rebamcentire1953 (Sales): Midnight — Red Foley (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes — Skeets McDonald (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys):
Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: She’s Got To Be A Saint — Ray Price (Columbia)

1983: Can’t Even Get The Blues — Reba McEntire (Mercury)

1993: Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away — Vince Gill (MCA)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2013 (Airplay): Goodbye In Her Eyes — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)

Week ending 1/5/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

johnanderson1953 (Sales): Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes — Skeets McDonald (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys):
Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Ruby Ann — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1973: She’s Got To Be A Saint — Ray Price (Columbia)

1983: Wild and Blue — John Anderson (Warner Bros.)

1993: Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away — Vince Gill (MCA)

2003: She’ll Leave You With A Smile — George Strait (MCA)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): ‘Til My Last Day — Justin Moore (Valory)

Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Paycheck

A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct 9513 weblog. Because the series in which it appeared was titled ‘Forgotten Artists’, I referred to the subject of the article as either Donald Lytle (his real name) or Donnie Young (his original sobriquet) so that I could get into his background without giving away his more famous sobriquet, that of Johnny Paycheck. Thanks to one monster song, “Take This Job And Shove It”, Johnny Paycheck’s name will be remembered for a long time; however, that song was hardly typical of the artistry of Johnny Paycheck. For this article we will refer to him as Johnny Paycheck.

Very few artists have been as successful at reinventing themselves as Johnny Paycheck (May 31, 1938-February 19, 2003). Born Donald Eugene Lytle, and later known as Donnie Young, Johnny Paycheck, John Austin Paycheck and perhaps a few other names that have slipped by me, Paycheck was possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist, but not as much talent at keeping himself in check. As a result, he continually found himself in hot water.
Johnny Paycheck was born in the small rural town of Greenfield, Ohio. Greenfield, located about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is a typical Midwest small town, the sort of place Hal Ketchum sang about in his song “Small Town Saturday Night”, It’s the kind of town people either remain in forever or can’t wait to leave. For a restless spirit like Paycheck, leaving was first and foremost in his thoughts.

He hit the road in 1953 with his clothing and his guitar, eventually winding up at a Navy recruiting center where he lied about his age and signed up for a tour of duty. Needless to say, restless spirits such as Johnny Paycheck rarely function well under the yoke of military discipline. While in the Navy, he got into a fight with an officer. Paycheck was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig. Released after approximately three years, Johnny headed to Nashville to see if he could put his musical talent to good use. Since he had been playing the bars, skull orchards and juke-joints for side money ever since leaving Greenfield, it seemed like a logical thing to do.

Nashville during the late 1950s was not the cosmopolitan city that it is today. Nashville, in those days, was a boisterous town, a hangout for country musicians and a place where hard-working (and hard drinking) country boys came to blow off steam and have a good time. Paycheck fit right in, and before too long, his songwriting and instrumental abilities – and his unique vocals – came to the attention of the country music community. Soon, he was working as a sideman in the bands of some of the biggest stars in Nashville, including Ray Price (who recorded Johnny’s composition “Touch My Heart”), Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, and, later, George Jones.
His tempestuous nature led to him changing employers with some frequency. Difficulties with the likes of Faron Young and George Jones, both notorious carousers, were destined to occur.

Paycheck cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ´50s under the moniker Donnie Young, before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960. Interestingly enough, Paycheck/Young´s first single, “On This Mountain Top” was billed as a duet with another restless soul – Roger Miller (although Miller functions basically as a background singer). The single gave Johnny his first chart success as the single reached #31 on Cashbox´s country chart. While this was a promising start, it would be more than a decade before he achieved sustained success as a recording artist.
During this period, Paycheck was in demand as a high tenor harmony singer, appearing on recordings with Faron Young, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and countless others. His appearances with George Jones are often claimed to have influenced Jones´ vocals, and listening to Jones´ recordings of the 1960s, it is easy to discern a stylistic shift from those of the Starday/Mercury years. Whether or not this shift was as a result of Johnny Paycheck’s influence will forever be subject to debate.

In 1964, the Beatles´ music finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean (they had been big in Great Britain for about 18 months) and had some influence on the landscape of pop music. Of even greater importance in 1964 was another event – the convergence of the vocal stylings of Johnny Paycheck with the production genius of Aubrey Mayhew, a maverick Nashville record producer. Read more of this post

Country Heritage Redux: Goldie Hill (1933 – 2005)

Had Carl Smith and Goldie Hill been born 30 or 40 years later, they might have been like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw or lately Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert – the dominant married couple in country music. Carl Smith (1927-2010) was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s; much bigger than either Tim or Blake at their peaks. Goldie Hill was glamorous and talented, with a powerful and pleasing voice, unquestionably one of the three or four best female voices ever in country music history. Those were the days before sleek luxury tour buses and private jets made touring less of an ordeal, making it hard to raise a family. So when they married in 1957, it spelled the end of Hill’s career.

She was born Angolda Voncile Hill in Karnes County, Texas on January 11, 1933. Her brother Tommy Hill preceded her entry into country music, gaining prominence as a musician and songwriter. Goldie made her debut in 1952, joining her brother Tommy as a member in Webb Pierce’s band. That same year, when visiting Nashville with Pierce, she auditioned and was signed to Decca – the same label as Pierce – by Paul Cohen. Her first single, “Why Talk To My Heart,” backed with “Don’t Send Me No Roses,” failed to chart, but her second single, “I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes,” rocketed to the top, occupying the number one slot for three weeks in late 1952. It was an answer to “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes,” a hugely successful record for four different artists: Slim Willets, Skeets McDonald, Ray Price and Perry Como.
Dubbed “The Golden Hill Billy,” Goldie continued to record successfully.

The country charts were only ten positions deep in 1952 and 1953; although none of her records in 1953 charted, they sold well. In 1954 she was paired with fellow Decca artist Justin Tubb, the son of the legendary Ernest Tubb, for some successful duets, including “Looking Back To See” (#4) and “Sure Fire Kisses” (#11). A duet of “Are You Mine” with fellow Decca artist Red Sovine reached #14 in 1955. In 1959, “Yankee Go Home”, also with Red Sovine, reached #17.

In 1957 Goldie married Carl Smith, who had recently divorced June Carter. Goldie toured briefly with the Phillip Morris Country Music Caravan, but left the show to tend to her growing family. This marked the end of her career as a live performer, although she did return to the recording studio for Epic Records in the late-1960s, issuing her last recordings. Her final chart appearance was in 1968 when “Lovable Fool” charted at #73.

Carl Smith and Goldie Hill remained married until her death on February 26, 2005 after a long battle with cancer. Carl had basically retired by the end of the 1970s and he and Goldie spent their later years raising quarter horses and living the life of ranchers. Goldie lived long enough to witness her husband’s enshrinement into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003 (about 20 years later than should have been the case). Had she not chosen family over career, she probably would have joined him there.

Every now and then CMT, Country Universe or someone else will count down the Greatest Women of Country Music. Goldie’s name usually is conspicuous by its absence or low ranking, but know this: none of them were better singers than Goldie Hill Smith, and few of them were as good.

DISCOGRAPHY
VINYL
Because Goldie pulled the plug on her career at such a young age, the number of albums she released was small, especially when compared to other artists of her generation. As best as I can tell, there were four studio albums issued on Decca (Goldie Hill, Lonely Heartaches, According To My Heart and Country Hit Parade) plus two reissues on Decca’s cheapie label Vocalion (Country Songs and Sings Country which were re-releases of Goldie Hill and According To My Heart respectively, but with songs deleted from each album. The Decca albums were released between 1960 and 1964 and the Vocalion reissues were from 1967-1968. By the time Decca released any of these albums, Goldie already had been off the road for several years.

Goldie returned to the recording studio in 1968 for Epic Records with two albums released: Goldie Sings Again and The Country Gentleman’s Lady. Both albums are captioned as being by Goldie Hill Smith.

Other than 45 and 78 rpm singles, that‘s it. Worse yet, none of her biggest singles are collected on the Decca albums (the titles don’t appear on the Epic albums either).

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has one CD available – Don’t Send Me No More Roses, a fifteen track collection of songs released in the 1950s on Decca consisting of non-charting singles, B sides and stray tracks. Not as easy to find, but you can find it is I Let The Stars Get in My Eyes released in 2005 by an obsessive compulsive group of Brits who specialize in keeping old, obscure and forgotten roots music in print, be it American and Canadian country music, Australian bush music or country music from New Zealand. The label is British Archive of Country Music. This album contains 24 tracks – all 15 of the tracks on the CD listed above plus nine more tracks (including all of her hits). Caveat – because BACM titles are released in limited quantities, you may have to wait while they press you a disc and they are released in the format of very high quality CD-R recordings. Browse the BACM website – you’ll be amazed at what you can find there.

Album Review: ‘A Portrait Of Patsy Cline’

June 1964 saw another posthumous release of previously unreleased Patsy Cline material, in the form of this album. The majority of the songs had been recorded at her final recording sessions, a month before her death, with a handful left over from previous sessions. It does however end up feeling one of her most cohesive albums, and the logical progression from Patsy’s previous studio albums, Showcase and Sentimentally Yours. As was now her trademark, the material mixes country and pop songs, all given orchestral arrangements, and if anything she was moving further away from her country roots.

Opening track ‘Faded Love’ had been a posthumous top 10 country single for Patsy in 1963, and was a Bob Wills cover transformed into an intense torch ballad with a typically exquisite vocal performance wrenching every morsel of regret from the words, and a production laden with strings giving it a sophisticated sheen, but one which supports rather than overwhelms the vocal. ‘I’ll Sail My Ship Alone’ was an old Moon Mullican country song (a #1 hit in 1948) which sounds even more changed under the Cline/Bradley treatment, and the end result is less successful than ‘Faded Love’.

‘When You Need A Laugh’, another single, charted less well, although it is a lovely Hank Cochran ballad of obsessive love, sung beautifully with a melancholy tinge to Patsy’s vocals. The protagonist is so desperate to be with the one she loves, she doesn’t care if he is laughing at her:

At least I’m on your mind when you’re laughing….
Even if the laugh’s on me I don’t mind at all
So when you need a laugh give me a call

It was one of the songs resurrected from a previous recording session (in September 1962), as was ‘Your Kinda Love’ . The latter was also released as a single but did not chart at all despite a beautiful, nuanced interpretation. It was written by Roy Drusky, another country artist who Owen Bradley was producing at the time, and who subsequently went on to a long and reasonably successful career.

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