My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Beatles

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Diamond In The Rough’

Released in July 1976, Diamond In The Rough was Jessi’s third album for Capitol, and her third album release in eighteen months. Like her first two Capitol album, it reached #4 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart. Unlike its two predecessors, it generated no significant hits – the only single released, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name”, died at #29. Basically sales-wise this album coasted on the success of the first two Capitol albums.

Since the last single from the prior album had died at #50, it is pretty clear that the forward momentum her career received from “I’m Not Lisa” had already been lost. From this point forward none of her solo albums would crack the top forty and none of her singles would reach top twenty status.

Diamond In The Rough
is not a bad album but I am not sure as to the identity of the target audience since the song selection seems rather random.

The title track “Diamond in the Rough” written by Donnie Fritts (a long-time veteran of Kris Kristofferson’s band) and Spooner Oldham, is a bluesy ballad that is much closer to being piano jazz than anything resembling country music.

“Get Back” a Lennon-McCartney composition, was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969, with Billy Preston’s energetic electric organ giving the song an energy that the Beatles had seemingly lost. Jessi’s rendition is not terrible, but is lethargic and not very interesting.

Better is Jessi’s “Would You Leave Now”, a lovely ballad, exquisitely sung by Jessi. The background features some gentle steel guitar amidst a light string accompaniment.

Although it was a massive hit, I never liked “Hey Jude”, the second Lennon- McCartney song on the album). Jessi sings it well, but at 7:16 the song is simply too long. Had she shortened it to about four minutes, I might have actually liked her gentle approach to the song, but at some point I simply lost interest – the only thing of interest in the coda is the fiddle.

Another Jessi Colter composition follows in “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. This is another lovely ballad about the pain of leaving, this more of the folk variety rather than jazz. Jessi’s piano is impeccable and the song is quite lovely, just not country.

Oh Will who made it rain last night?
Who could take blue from my sky and paint it black night?
Who’s telling me to look so I’ll see the tears for years we will cry?
Talk to me Will.
You never told lies; who made it rain last night?

Lee Emerson’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” was the chart single from the album and is a country break-up song. I heard this song quite a bit upon its release and was surprised to find out later that this topped out at #29. There is an interesting story behind Lee Emerson’s death, but I won’t go into that here. Porter Wagoner and George Strait (Strait Out of The Box) both recorded the song.

I said goodbye to you this mornin’
With only these words to explain
I said I’d found someone I love better
But I still hear your voice call my name
I thought I heard you callin’ my name
Funny, I still feel this way.
Your voice seem so close, but I knew
That by now you were many miles away
I walk through the streets of the city
People passing by think it’s so strange
I’m talkin’ but there’s no one beside me
I thought I heard you call my name

“Ain’t No Way” by Tere Mansfield is a good country ballad which I think could have been a decent single. The problem for Jessi, is that she doesn’t have a really forceful voice, but on this song she gets across enough power to sell the song.

Obviously Jessi really loved Waylon, sticking with him through good times and bad times. “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon)” is exhibit number one for this proposition. Too personal to be a single, the song leaves the listen with no doubts as to its sincerity.

You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?
` You did hang that moon, didn’t you Waylon?
Weren’t you the one they called the seventh son?
You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?

You take so many words and bring them all home with one
You walk into my room and it lights up like the sun
Each step you take leads a way for someone
And I know you’d never do love wrong

“Woman’s Heart is a Handy Place to Be” by Cort Casady and Marshall Chapman is a jog-along ballad with a story to tell about a charmer who can never be faithful, but whom the narrator wants anyway . Jessi does a nice job with the song, but Crystal Gayle also recorded the song to better effect.

He’s a charmer
He’s broken every heart that’s tried to hold him
It’s tearin´ me apart to know I want him
Knowin´ I can never tell him so

He’s a loner
Runnin´ from a friend to find a stranger
It makes me weak it makes me wonder
Will I ever make it on my own
Will I ever make it on my own

A woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
For a man afraid of givin’ and fightin´ to be free
Yes a woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
I just wish the heart that’s broken now was not a part of me

Ms Marshall Chapman has led an interesting existence (she is six feet tall and much more of a rock & roller than a country songsmith, but she has had considerable success in country music with Sawyer Brown having a major hit with Betty’s Being Bad”.

The album concludes with an unnecessary reprise of “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. I would have much preferred an additional song.

This is a tough album to evaluate in that both of the Beatles’ covers were complete misfires and several of the songs seem to be out of context on this album.

Grade: C+

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: 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: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Second Hand Heart’

61TTBEi0Q3LI was singularly unimpressed with Dwight Yoakam’s last album 3 Pears, which I reviewed when it was released in September 2012. The B- rating I gave it seems generous in retrospect. The project was so lackluster that I greeted the release of Yoakam’s new album with some trepidation and didn’t even bother to listen to it until well after a week after I downloaded it.

I’m pleased to report that my fears were totally unfounded, as Second Hand Heart, Dwight’s second album since returning to the Warner Bros. Nashville roster, is infinitely superior to its predecessor. While not as traditional as his 80s and early 90s work, it is more in line with the type of music he was making in the early 2000s, a la Tomorrow’s Sounds Today. Produced by Dwight with Chris Lord-Alge, it is best described as Buck Owens and Johnny Cash meet the Beatles and Phil Spector. The trademark Bakersfield sound is still there — particularly on tracks like “Off Your Mind” and “The Big Time”, but others are more reminiscent of 1960s rock with their emphasis on electric guitars, Wall of Sound-like production, and a little more reverb than I would have liked.

Despite his reputation as a New Traditionalist, Dwight has always pushed the boundaries of country music, so it’s no surprise that there are a variety of musical influences heard on this album. The guitar work on “Dreams of Clay”, a remake of a cut on his 2000 album Tomorrow’s Sounds Today is slightly reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (which Yoakam covered in the early 90s), and as one of the few songs on the album without excess reverb, it’s one of my favorites, along with “Off Your Mind” and the title track. The Beatles influence is most apparent on “She” and “Liar”.

There are only two songs on the album that Dwight did not write — a cover of the traditional “Man of Constant Sorrow” and the beautiful closing track “V’s of Birds”. The former is done as a rockabilly number and doesn’t quite work; I prefer a more traditional “high lonesome” interpretation. The latter, with its piano intro is a pure pop number without the rock influences that pervade the rest of the album. It is very well done and might have been a hit for Dwight earlier in his career. Predictably, the title track and lead single has so far been ignored by radio; however, the album itself is doing quite well, selling 21,000 in its first week and debuting at #2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It’s Yoakam’s highest charting album since 1988’s Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room and deservedly so. While I would have preferred something a little closer to that 1980s classic, Second Hand Heart is a welcome return to form for one of country music’s most talented and enduring artists.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘I’ve Learned To Live’

i've learned to liveMost fans will know Dean Dillon as a fine songwriter, who cranks out hits for other artists. Unfortunately, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. By the time this album came along in 1989, Dillon had already largely figured out his fate in life (although he still harbored some delusions of grandeur as a singer) and mostly had quit trying to save his best material for himself. I’ve Learned To Live consists largely of material he had not been able to pitch elsewhere. That is not to say that there aren’t some good songs here, just that the material with real hit potential had already been channeled to George Strait, Vern Gosdin and other top-shelf artists. That said, I really enjoyed this album, which I regard as his best solo effort.

The album opens up with “Just In Time” an up-tempo song co-written with Frank Dycus. There is some nice mandolin playing on the track by Randy Scruggs.

“Changes Comin’ On” is a slow ballad that probably is the best song on the album. Co-written with Jimmy Darrell and Buddy Cannon. Alabama and Gene Watson recorded this song on albums.

Well, I’m still hooked on Haggard
But the Beatles can’t come back like we hoped they would
In Memphis, Tennessee, King is gone
As I put my kids to bed, oh, I wonder what lies ahead for them to see
‘Cause I can feel the change comin’ on

I can feel changes comin’ on
People still are singin’ different songs
They’re searchin’ for the place where they belong
I can feel changes comin’ on

“Who Do You Think You Are”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that would have made a good single for someone.

“Don’t You Even Think About Leaving” features the great Tanya Tucker duetting with Dean. The song is quick, sassy and well suited for a duet. Johnny Gimble plays fiddle as only he can.

“I’ve Learned To Live”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that Shelby Lynne also recorded. Dean does a nice job with the song

Like a child lost in the wilderness I knew not where to go
Surrounded by the emptiness of a love that left me cold
I stumbled through the darkness of nights that have no stars
And days that have no sunshine to warm my naked heart

Like a bird in flight brought down by stones from an unknown assailant’s sling
A stranger took you from my arms and I lost everything
In days to come I nearly ran out of ways to stay alive
But through it all I never lost the will to survive

But I’m not over you and I doubt that I’ll ever be
So I’ve learned to live and you won’t be the death of me oh no
Yes I’ve learned to live and I’m doing well but I’m not over you

“It’s Love That Makes You Sexy” was one of two singles issued from the album. It’s not a bad song (actually the Dean Dillon / Frank Dycus pairing didn’t write any bad songs) but Dean just wasn’t a marketable singer. Despite Sonny Garrish’s nice steel guitar work, this one died at #61 in 1989.

The next single “Back In The Swing of Things” fared even worse, dying at #89 (it reached #70 on the Canadian Country charts). Dean’s version of the song really does swing – with Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Sonny Garrish on steel, how can it not swing? Co-writer Vern Gosdin also recorded the song on an album. The song really should have been a hit – I would rate it as the second best song on the album.

Hank Cochran collaborated with Dean on “Summer Was A Bummer”. It’s a nice song but nothing special.

“Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” sounds like a country song from the 1965-1975 period with the steel guitar serving as the lead instrument with Johnny Gimble lending a few flourishes with his fiddle. Glenn Martin co-wrote this song and also wrote a bunch of hits for people like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, either of whom would have had a hit on this song during their heydays.

Her thinkin’ I’m a doin’ her wrong
Ain’t a doin’ me right

The album closes with “Holdin’ Pattern, a nice ballad that Dean sings well.

Dean’s prior album Slick Nickel reeked of 1980s production values. In contrast, this album has more authentically country production with but slight traces of the sound that characterized the early 1980s. He has an ace fiddle player in Johnny Gimble, a superb steel player in Sonny Garrish, a multi-instrumental wizard in Randy Scruggs, and a solid second fiddler in Paul Anastasio. Unfortunately, if this album couldn’t produce any hits for Dean, it would seem unlikely that he could ever break through as an artist. I’d give this album a B+.

A look back at 1989: Part 2 – Buck Owens

Buck Owens with Dwight YoakamThe year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt were the biggest names to emerge in 1989, but there were others as well.

This is not to say that the old guard didn’t produce some excellent records that year, even if they were having difficulty getting playing time. Among these was the Baron of Bakersfield, Buck Owens .
Unlike George Jones, whose 1989 album was but one of a dozen or more albums to follow, Buck Owens 1989 effort ACT NATURALLY, was the penultimate effort by the #1 country artist of the 1960s. Although Buck’s recording career essentially ended at the end of the 1970, there was a three album coda to his career.

Late in the decade, Dwight Yoakam dredged Buck out of retirement to perform a duet on “Streets of Bakerfield”. Following the success of that recording, Capitol inked Buck to a new deal which was to see three albums released. The three albums were 1988’s HOT DOG, this album, and 1991’s KICKIN’ IN. None of the albums sold especially well, but this album featured a return to the top thirty singles chart in “Act Naturally”.

In 1963, “Act Naturally” was the first number one record of Buck’s career spending four weeks atop the country charts. Not only did the song jumpstart Buck’s career, but Buck’s recording caught the attention of the Beatles, who had Ringo Starr record the song. In the USA, Capitol released the song as the B side of “Yesterday”.

Apparently Buck and the various members of the Beatles (especially Ringo) had established rapport over the years, so the two of them got together to record the song as a duet and shoot a video.

The rest of the album was comprised of remakes of some of Buck’s older classics, some songs Buck had written since retiring at the end of the 1970s and one cover. One of the highlights on the album was a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Crying Time”. Although Buck had not released the song as a single, Ray Charles more than made up for the omission with his recording.

In addition to the aforementioned “Crying Time ” and “Act Naturally” Buck reprised his older classics “Gonna Have Love” (#76 in 1989) , and “Take Me Back Again” . Newer Owens tunes were “Tijuana Lady”, “Out Chasing Rainbows”, “Rock Hard Love”, “I Was There” and “Brooklyn Bridge”. Since none of these newer songs were released as singles, not many had the opportunity to hear them. I think “Tijuana Lady”, “Brooklyn Bridge” or “Rock Hard Love” would have made decent singles. My favorite of the newer songs is “Out There Chasing Rainbows” which other than the rhythm section, comes closest to the 1960s sound (meaning it would never have made it as a single)

I’m always out there chasing rainbows always going for the gold
Searching for you in far off places yes I’m always out there chasing rainbows

` Your memory makes me think of rainbows of summer days and daffodils
Of tender times and sweet surrender I loved you then and always will
I’m always out there…

The one cover song was of the old Wynn Stewart classic “Playboy”, it was a great song in Wynn’s hands and Buck does the song justice.

Other than latter day Buckaroos Jim Shaw (keyboards) and Doyle Curtsinger (bass), the musicians on this album are Nashville session men. This means that the album does not sound like one of the classic Buck Owens & The Buckaroos albums of the 1960s, but it doesn’t really sound like the typical late 1980s production either as no strings or synthesizers appear plus some real old school musicians such as Ralph Mooney (steel) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) appear on some of the tracks.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy’

ngdb uncle charlieThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began in the 1960s as a southern California folk rock band. They limited success before temporarily disbanding in 1969. After renegotiating their contract with Liberty Records, they were given more artistic freedom, and the changes were immediately apparent in 1970’s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which saw the band moving in a more country direction.

Country rock bands originating from California were nothing new, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took things a step further by incorporating into their music instruments that were closely associated with bluegrass and country music, and featuring them prominently. While blending of genres is commonplace today, it was quite revolutionary in 1970. The eclectic Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy is equal parts country, bluegrass, folk, and rock. It features both original music and cover versions of other artists’ work, as well as reinterpretations of old folk songs that had long been in the public domain. At times, particularly when the band starts to harmonize, the sound is something akin to the Beach Boys with banjos.

The Uncle Charlie referenced in the album’s title was a relative of producer Bill McEuen’s wife. He was born in Texas in 1886 and performs a brief folk song “Jesse James”, recorded in 1963, on which he plays harmonica and gets his dog Teddy to howl along. He also gives two brief interviews, which are mildly interesting on the first listen.

A number of well known names appear among the songwriting credits: Michael Nesmith of The Monkees wrote the bluegrass-flavored opening number “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, which became a minor pop hit, peaking at #64, and “Propiniquity”, which is one of my favorites on the disc. Kenny Loggins wrote another the album’s singles, the more rock-oriented “House at Pooh’s Corner” which name-drops several of the characters from A.A. Milne’s well loved children’s stories. It reached #53 pop. The album’s biggest hit and the band’s best known song to this day is their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr Bojangles”, which reached #9 on the Hot 100. It didn’t garner enough attention from mainstream country outlets to make the country charts but that may have been due to the way the record and the band in general, were marketed. It certainly sounded country enough, even by 1971 standards, to have fit into the country radio format.

NGDB member Jeff Hanna wrote “Cure”, which is another one of my favorites and songwriter Randy Newman supplied the very nice “Livin’ Without You”. The NGDB members show themselves to be very adept bluegrass musicians, which is somewhat surprising given their West Coast origins. The 2003 reissue of the album includes a grassed-up version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “What Goes On”, which Beatles aficinados probably hate but I quite liked. I don’t like the rock-oriented numbers quite as much but they didn’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the album.

In between the country and rock numbers are a number of traditional folk and bluegrass numbers, usually performed instrumentally, which help give the album a “sitting around the living room” feel, and providing the template for the future and better remembered Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy, the first volume of which would appear two years later.

Aside from “Mr. Bojangles”, there isn’t a whole lot among the album’s 23 tracks that will be familiar to most modern listeners, but the album is well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Country roads and greener pastures

TaylorI was really happy to hear about the release of Taylor Swift’s new single last week. Now there’s something you never thought you’d hear me say. But (you knew there had to be a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I should qualify that comment by saying my mood was not affected so much because I was looking forward to listening to new Taylor Swift music, but because the single “Shake It Off” is a watershed moment in Swift’s career, as the artist, her label and her publicists acknowledge that 1989, Swift’s forthcoming album, is not country, but pop.

I will be the first to argue that this is hardly news and that Swift’s music was never really country to begin with, but it’s nice to hear the people responsible for marketing her finally admit it. While Swift’s defenders have argued for years that she was bringing new fans to the country genre, I always maintained that her youthful fanbase was unlikely to embrace the genre at large, and that Swift herself would eventually decide that the pop world was a better fit for her. The shift began with the release of 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which became the first Taylor Swift single to be deemed not country enough for country radio. It spent nine weeks at #1 anyway, due to a ridiculous change in Billboard’s chart tabulation methodology, but that is a separate topic.
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Fellow Travelers: Val Doonican

Val_Doonican_1971Unlike Engelbert Humperdinck, who achieved world-wide fame, our next fellow traveler’s popularity is largely confined to the United Kingdom and Ireland and parts of the British Commonwealth, with some popularity in the Netherlands. Like Humperdinck, Michael Valentine “Val” Doonican was born elsewhere (Ireland) but migrated to England where he achieved great success.

Val Doonican was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1927, where he started performing in his late teens as part of the Irish folk scene where he appeared on radio and on Waterford’s first television broadcast. Val moved to England in 1951 as part of a group called The Four Ramblers. Eventually Anthony Newley noticed Val’s singular vocal talents and pushed him into a solo direction. In 1963 Val appeared on Sunday Night At The London Palladium leading him to be offered his own television show on the BBC.

    Who Was He ?

The closest analogy to Val Doonican’s career is that of Perry Como, an American pop singer whose hits spanned decades and whose television shows spanned four decades. Like Como, Doonican had a very relaxed style (Val was known for sitting in a rocking chair while singing on his television shows), but unlike Como who came from the Italian belle canto tradition and mostly performed songs from the Italian and American pop standards catalog, Val emerged from the Irish folk tradition and sang a wider variety of music. Doonican’s career on British television lasted for over twenty years. Val Doonican had remarkable recording success given that his recording career launched during the “British Invasion” years of the Beatles, Kinks and Rolling Stones. While Val never had a number one record in England, he did have five top ten records with “What Would I Be” reaching #2 in 1966. “Walk Tall” reached #3 in 1964 and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” reached #3 in 1967. In all, Val charted 14 hits on the British charts.

    What Was His Connection to Country Music ?

Val Doonican emerged from the Irish folk tradition, one of the key elements of Appalachian and early country music. Doonican’s repertoire consisted of folk songs, pop songs and American country songs. Two of Val’s biggest hits were covers of American country hits in “Walk Tall” (Faron Young) and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” (Roy Drusky) and he issued several other country songs as singles (his cover of Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning” reached #12 in England and #5 in Ireland).
Val Doonican issued many albums during his career. Twelve of his albums reached the British charts with six of them reaching the top six, and one album Val Doonican Rocks But Gently going to #1 in 1967. Val’s albums featured many country songs, some of which featured arrangements that could have been played on American country radio. Val Doonican issued many albums during his career and gently introduced British audiences to American country songs. Moreover, several of his albums were released in the United States and Val would feature American country artists as guests on his television show.

I made the analogy of Doonican’s career to that of Perry Como, but as a vocalist a better comparison would be Jim Reeves or (to a lesser extent) Roy Drusky. It doesn’t appear that Val ever tried to conquer the US market although Americans who lived in England for a few years (such as myself) would have loved to have seen him do it. ABC TV ran The Val Doonican Show as a summer replacement from June 5, 1971 to August 14, 1971.

Val retired five ago from performing (he is now 87) but his much of his musical output is still in print and worth seeking.

Fellow Travelers – Carl Perkins

‘One For The Money – Two For The Show – Three To Get Ready – And Go Cat Go’
carl perkins

If Elvis was the King, Carl Perkins was the commoner who became a widely respected elder statesman of rock and roll music. Much more of a country boy than Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins perhaps saw his shot at superstardom ruined by a car accident that killed Carl’s brother Jay and put Carl out of commission just as his hit “Blue Suede Shoes” ascended to the top of the country charts (it would reach #2 on the pop charts).

Who Was He ?

Carl Perkins (1932-1998) was talented songwriter, singer and musician who perhaps owed more to the country side of rockabilly than to the R&B influences of most early rock and rollers. Carl had only five songs chart on the pop charts with “Blue Suede Shoes” easily the biggest hit spending four weeks at #2. His other pop hits were “Boppin’ The Blues (#70), “Your True Love” (#67), “Pink Petal Pushers” (#91) and “Pointed Toes Shoes” (#93). Although his chart success was limited these songs, as well as non-charting songs such as “Matchbox”,”Honey Don’t” and”All Mama’s Children” were covered and performed by countless rock and roll and rockabilly acts for the next three decades. The Beatles recorded a large number of his songs. As a guitarist Perkins was revered and respected by some of the biggest names in the music business many of whom would eventually record tracks with him, including George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, NRBQ and Paul Simon. He appeared in live concert with Dave Edmunds and Eric Clapton. The list actually is endless so I’ll stop listing names now

What Was His Connection to County Music ?” (#70)

Carl was from the small Tennessee town of Tiptonville and remained a country boy at heart. Carl had fifteen country chart hits with six reaching the top twenty

He was well liked in the music community and while Carl was at a low point in his career (and in battling personal demons), Johnny Cash added Carl as parting of his road show package. Carl would spend ten years touring with Cash. While part of the Cash show, Carl penned “Daddy Sang Bass” which would spend six weeks as a country number one for Johnny Cash, and Tommy Cash would have a top ten record with another Perkins composition “Rise and Shine”. In 1991 the New Nashville Cats (Mark O’Connor, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner took Carl’s “Restless” back into the country top thirty.

Unlike some singers who sound good only when performing their own hits, Carl seemed to be able to sing anybody’s material and make sound as if it was especially composed for him. Virtually any Carl Perkins recording is worth hearing.

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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Sounds like last century: Pam Tillis live in Switzerland

Last month our friend Thomas Kobler reported on a recent Suzy Bogguss concert in Switzerland. Our current Spotlight Artist Pam Tillis has also just paid a visit to that beautiful country, and Tom has kindly shared another review with us.

We must have been real good here last year, since I cannot think of any other reason, why on earth Lorrie Morgan in March, Suzy Bogguss in April and now Pam Tillis in June all should find their way across the Atlantic to Switzerland to play us some of the best 90’s country that there is.

So far, the last one in line of those 90’s greats was Pam Tillis on the big stage in the huge white tent of the 20th (Anniversary) International Trucker & Country Festival in Interlaken on June 29. If the name of that place rings a bell, you might have heard it on TV. It is the pretty resort in between two alpine lakes just around the corner from that dramatic north face of the Eiger mountain, where Clint Eastwood had been hanging around quite a bit in the 1975 spy thriller The Eiger Sanction.
As usual at festivals, the slots can be more or less favourable. Pam Tillis’s slot was a slightly tricky one. She came on after the Bellamy Brothers – whose country music is quite similar to popular German hit-radio tunes except for pedal steel and language. (The Bellamy Brothers’ 70‘s hit song ‘Let Your Love Flow’ is the biggest German hit single of the last forty years or so, according to a representative audience poll in a popular German TV-show a couple of years ago. Here it is called ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’, sung by German singer Jürgen Drews.) Hence, coming on after them and their Swiss friends – which gave them almost something like “home field advantage” – at around 11 p.m. was probably not the most desirable slot.

However, Pam Tillis could not be bothered and hit the stage with two more women beside and a further four musicians behind her. In a glittery white blouse, matching dangly earrings and glittery tight blue jeans, tucked into – you might have guessed – glittery black knee-high boots, she looked as shiny, proper and attractive as it could get.

Consequently, she started her show warning not to leave anything hanging around – especially not your heart – only to think over the whole mess love life can bring a couple of minutes later and ending up wondering: ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’. It most likely was not very far, but far enough to consider flirting with the ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’ experience. In the end, things sounded as if they got worked out because next came ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’ just before things turned somewhat sour again, making her shout ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’, and coming to the conclusion that ‘Life Has Sure Changed Us Around’. . So far, so good. In a pre-concert interview Pam Tillis told CountryStyle:

“I love to express all kinds of feelings, be it through music or acting.”

No doubt, I thought after this opening selection of songs.

Then came a series of covers consisting of ‘Ring Of Fire’, ‘Walking After Midnight’ and Dolly’s ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’. Had not Carlene Carter performed an absolutely stunning ‘Ring Of Fire’ the night before, I might have enjoyed Pam’s take more.

Turning back to her own material, she picked things up with the never recorded ‘Dance To The Sweet Rhythm Of Mine’, and reiterating her heart‘s desire unmistakably when continuing, ‘I Sure Could Use Your Company Now’. Something ‘Blue Rose‘s’ been dreaming of too, right afterward. Still one of those songs that almost make you want to thank the good Lord for the pedal-steel and Pam Tillis a lot.

After that, the concept of the playlist got more difficult to read, but ‘Calico Plains’, ‘Band In The Window’, ‘Put Yourself In My Place’, ‘Train Without A Whistle’ and the funky-bitter and witty ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’ did not make you miss any greater underlying scheme at all. She delivered these songs grippingly, supported by a fine band in which the multi-talented Mary Sue Englund stood out playing second fiddle, keyboard and acoustic guitar as well as providing background vocals and Lorrie Morgan’s part in the duet ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ from the remarkable Grits and Glamour song catalog. In fact, I found it quite difficult to read my hastily scribbled notes for this review because I was somewhat afraid of missing a single moment of that part of the show.

After ‘Early Memories’, a running around ‘Pony’, the insightful ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ and a good look at her ‘Vida Loca’ in general, it was almost 1 a.m. when her doubts about whether ‘Memphis’, the southern summer nights or just her and him being a little frisky were to blame for a doubtless great time there. Closing the night with wanna holding hands Beatles-style a little later was a rather charming, innocent and fitting encore in the light of what had happened there in Memphis.

Well, what really can you say after such a show? I felt, it might have been an even better concert than perhaps some during her country radio heydays in the 90’s had been, for it included so much of the music from a long and distinguished career of a wonderful artist and most charming person (with quite a particular taste when it comes to sunglasses, I found out at the media event). Or inversely: If Pam Tillis and her band had such a good time in Switzerland as the fans around me and I had during her concert – they must have had a blast.

Fellow Travelers: Dean Martin

deanmartinThis is the fourth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE?
If Michael Jackson was the King of Pop (which I doubt) then Dean Martin was the King of Cool, a suave urbane singer and actor, one of the two leaders (Frank Sinatra was the other) of the “Rat Pack” . Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1917 as Dino Crocetti, Dean Martin was about as famous as is humanly possible.

Dean’s career in show business was delayed by a stint in the US Army during WW2. After being released from the US Army (he was drafted in 1944), Dean became a lounge singer on the east coast. At some point he met up with Jerry Lewis and the pair became a duo singing (mostly Dean) and comedy (mostly Jerry) for sellout crowds across the nation. The Martin-Lewis duo also made several successful motion pictures. During this period Dean had a number of hit records as a solo performer including “That’s Amore” (#2 – 1953) and “Memories Are Made of This (#1 – 1955)

Going solo in 1956, Dean recorded a number of successful records. Although rock and roll had largely wiped out the market for classic pop, Martin persevered. “Volare” went to #12 in 1958; then after a dry spell, Dean signed with his pal Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1961. A few singles had minor success; then someone had the notion to recast a song on the acoustic Dream With Dean album using a big band arrangement. To the surprise of everyone, “Everybody Loves Somebody“ nudged The Beatles out of the #1 slot on August 15, 1964. The song stayed at #1 for one week on the pop chart and eight weeks on the adult contemporary chart. While Dean never again had another #1 pop hit, his songs continued to chart on the pop charts and five more reached #1 on the adult contemporary charts (“The Door Is Still Open To My Heart”, “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You”, “In The Chapel In The Moonlight” and “In The Misty Moonlight”). Another fifteen songs reached the top ten on the adult contemporary charts after 1964, including his 1969 recording of “Gentle On My Mind” which reached #2 on the British pop charts and stayed in the top ten there for many weeks.

In 1965 NBC TV launched The Dean Martin Show, a musical variety show which ran for nine seasons and 264 episodes. Although the genre was already largely dead, Dean’s show was in the top twenty-five shows for five of its nine seasons and in the top ten for two of those seasons. After this show was off the air, NBC ran occasional celebrity roasts under the title The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for another ten years, approximately three times per year.

Dean also had great success in motion pictures appearing in a number of successful westerns and starring in the Matt Helms series of spy movie spoofs.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?
Although Dean only had one recording chart on Billboard’s country charts, a 1983 recording of “My First Country Song” which was written by Conway Twitty and featured a guest vocal by Twitty on the last chorus, Dean Martin recorded many country songs, introducing them to audiences which would otherwise been unaware of them. Reprise albums such as Dean “Tex” Martin: Country Style, and Dean “Tex” Martin Rides Again were at least 50% country songs, and most subsequent albums prominently featured country songs, with six straight albums being named for a country song contained within the album. Many of Dean’s recordings were covered by country singers, Charlie Walker enjoying a big hit with “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me”.

Dean’s son Dino (of Dino, Desi & Billy fame) died in a plane crash in 1987, completely killing off Dean’s interest in performing, and life in general. Dean died in 1995. All of his Capitol and Reprise recordings have been in print at some time during the last fifteen years. Nearly eighteen years after his death, he is still the King of Cool.

There is an official website but for more than anybody would likely ever want to know about Dean check out ilovedinomartin.

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Covers The Hits’

Compilation albums have long been the ploy of record companies looking to squeeze that last dollar out of artists who’ve moved on to other pursuits. In 2000 Mercury Nashville wasn’t any different, releasing Covers The Hits a collection of cover tunes Sammy Kershaw recorded throughout his tenure on the label.

Not surprisingly, the album came and went with little notice and there weren’t any singles to push its existence at radio and retail. It also didn’t help matters much that most of these covers weren’t that inspired to begin with and often rank among the worst music in Kershaw’s catalog (namely “Chevy Van” and “Memphis, Tennessee” from Politics, Religion, and Her, although the latter is listenable).

Kershaw’s cover of the Leo Sayer pop hit “More Than I Can Say,” taken from his Maybe Not Tonight is adequate, but really nothing more than a note for note sound-alike performance to the original. He pulls off his Beatles cover (from the 1995 tribute album Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles) vocally, but the muffled arrangement dampens my overall enjoyment of the song.

There are tracks here I actually really like, however. Kershaw is surprisingly in top form on his cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (from Red Hot + Country) and he turns in a version as good as the original. I also adore his fabulously restrained version of The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” which comes from the equally magnificent Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones from 1998. Kershaw’s contribution is a standout cut from that project, one of my all-time favorite tribute albums. The other favorite cut of mine is the opener, and only radio hit amongst these tracks, his 1994 #2 “Third Rate Romance.”

Kershaw also pulls off a strong version of Dr. Hook’s “Little Bit More,” the only previously unreleased track on the project. I love the traditional production and his strong vocal on the track. Overall, Covers The Hits scores more than it fails, although its slightly below any of Kershaw’s strongest original work. Extremely cheap used copies are available online and individual tracks can be found on YouTube.

Grade: C+

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

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – “3 Pears”

I miss the days when major label country music artists could be counted on to release albums once a year like clockwork. Not only did it ultimately mean more music in the hands of the consumer, but it also gave the artist a bit of a safety net if he or she wanted to experiment a bit. If an album wasn’t quite up to par, the fans could take consolation in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be too long before a new — and hopefully better — album would be released. But under the current business model, where it’s not unusual for the wait between albums to be five or more years, it is a huge disappointment when an album isn’t to one’s liking. And this is, unfortunately, the case with Dwight Yoakam’s latest release 3 Pears.

In addition to being Yoakam’s first studio album in five years, and his first collection of (mostly) original material since 2005’s Blame The Vain, 3 Pears also marks his return to Warner Bros., the label of his commercial heyday. It could have been — and should have been — one of the biggest events of the year in country music. But unfortunately, the album has little to do with actual country music, and seems to be more influenced by 1960s rock groups such as The Beatles and The Mamas and The Papas than Buck Owens or George Jones.

It’s hard not to like a Dwight Yoakam album, and I should make it perfectly clear that 3 Pears is by no means a terrible album, but it falls short of the high bar set by Dwight’s earlier work and it is not the album I was hoping for. While I wasn’t expecting a Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc, Etc or Hillbilly Deluxe, I was expecting an eclectic set encompassing a variety of styles, with at least a few traditional country numbers to balance things out. Instead, 3 Pears is dominated by too-loud electric guitars, too much reverb and very little that is particularly memorable. The one ostensibly traditional number — a cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” is obnoxiously overproduced with the loud electric guitars and equally loud and unnecessary percussion taking the place of the fiddle and steel of the classic Joe Maphis and Vern Gosdin versions.

The opening track “Take Hold Of My Hand”, a co-write with Kid Rock, is a pleasant enough toe-tapper that would have sounded at home on Dwight’s 2000 effort Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, but things begin to deteriorate with the second track “Waterfall”, the first of two Yoakam-penned songs with bizarre lyrics (the other song being the title track). It’s clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek but I just can’t get into lyrics like

If I had a jellyfish
I betcha we would never miss
A single peanut butter kiss or squeeze

or

If I had a big giraffe
He’d have to take a real long bath
And that’s why waterfalls are really neat

Seriously??

The lyrics to the title track are downright incomprehensible, talking about “three pairs” of various items — glasses, shades, shoes, and not the three pieces of fruit implied by the spelling of the title or the album’s cover art. My other big beef with this song is the synthesizer track that would have been intrusive even by 1980s standards.

That’s not to say that everything here is bad. “It’s Never Alright” is a nice midtempo number written with Ashley Monroe, and “Long Way To Go” is an excellent number that is reminiscent of Dwight’s 90s work. An alternate, piano-led acoustic version of the song appears as the album’s closing track. Both versions are highly enjoyable, as is “Missing Heart”, a mostly acoustic ballad that shows that Dwight is still in good vocal form, and that he doesn’t need to overwhelm his voice with loud, cluttered production and reverb effects.

In general, the second half of the album is better than the first half and the album’s better tracks show that Dwight is still capable of making worthwhile music. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll hear any of the songs from 3 Pears on country radio. While I can’t recommend the entire album without reservation, I do think it’s worth cherry-picking and individually downloading some of the better tracks such as “It’s Never Alright”, “Missing Heart”, and both versions of “Long Way To Go”. The rest of the album is just filler. I hope that we don’t have to wait another five to seven years for Dwight’s next project, which ideally would be a back to basics project produced by Pete Anderson. In the meantime, I’ll continue to listen to Dwight’s classic 80s and 90s work.

Grade: B-

Spotlight Artist: Dan Seals

Danny Wayland Seals was born in Texas in 1948 as a member of a very musical family. His father was not a professional musician, but had performed with Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. Elder brother Jim was a member of successful soft rock duo Seals & Crofts, who were big stars in the 1970s. Cousins included country star Johnny Duncan and songwriter Troy Seals, and a generation later, another cousin, Brady Seals was to become lead singer of the successful group Little Texas. Young Dan grew up exposed to both the country music his father loved, but as a teenager was influenced strongly by the music of the Beatles, which led to the nickname (and later stage name) ‘England Dan’.

The young Dan followed in his brother’s footsteps by teaming up with a high school classmate to form the duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. They released a number of albums together, with their greatest success coming with the single ‘I’d Really Love To see You Tonight’, a mellow ballad which topped the Adult Contemporary chart and reached #2 pop. Reba McEntire covered the song in 1978, as a B-side to one of her early singles, an early indicator of Dan’s potential as a country artist (although he did not write the song).

Going solo in 1980 was not an immediate success, and Dan lost his home and most of the money he had made as a pop star in a battle with the IRS over unpaid back taxes. It was then that he moved sideways into country music, signing to Capitol Records in 1983, and working with producer Kyle Lehning. His style retained many elements of his pop past, with an emphasis on gentle ballads, but either his own inclinations or Lehning’s meant that his music was generally less heavily produced than his pop-country contemporaries, and he maintained his success well into the period when the neotraditional movement was sweeping away the worst excesses of the 80s. Dan released some excellent singles through the 1980s, and was rewarded with a run of 16 successive top 10 country hits, including a particularly hot streak with nine straight #1s.

His career slowed down markedly in the 1990s. A move to Warner Brothers failed to reignite it, but he reinvented himself artistically by recording acoustic takes on some of his big hits, and continued to work touring. He died prematurely of cancer on March 25, 2009. In his last years he had been making music with his brother Jim, but a planned album was never completed.

We plan to cover the highlights of the career of a man whose crossover from pop to country respected the genre, and who created some timeless music.

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Let The Picture Paint Itself’

Not long after his exit from Columbia, Rodney found a new major label home in MCA, where his old friend and longterm producer Tony Brown was now in charge. Rodney’s debut album for the label was released in 1994. The songs were all self-written, although they vary in quality. It seems that Rodney’s music was out of step with the prevailing mood on country radio with the rise of the hat acts, but he was still trying to maintain the mainstream stardom he had achieved a few years earlier. The result was an album which often falls between two stools.

The jangling Beatles-styled sound of the cheerfully philosophical title track was the lead single, but it did not do well. The astonishingly bland ‘Big Heart’ is too obviously tailored for radio and fails to convince on any level.

Rodney’s fine and subtle song ‘I Don’t Fall In Love So Easy’ had been recorded by Trisha Yearwood on the previous year’s The Song Remembers When, with Rodney singing harmony. Yearwood returned the favor by harmonising when Rodney recorded his own version of the song, and the result is very good (if not as beautiful as Yearwood’s version), with a contemporary sound and emotionally convincing vocal. But it was too little too late, and radio ignored it completely when the track became the album’s third and last single, even though it was far superior to its two predecessors.

‘That Ol’ Door’ is a fine song looking back affectionately to a happy home “in a world we understood”, back in the early days of his marriage to Rosanne Cash before it all fell apart. ‘Once In A While’ has a pretty melody, pensive lyric about the surviving spark of love. Curiously, Rodney wrote the song with John Leventhal, who was to marry Rosanne, presumably the song’s inspiration, the following year.

Rodney wrote two songs this time with Guy Clark. The relaxed ‘Stuff That Works’ about what matters most in life is very appealing both in its down to earth lyric and the pretty arrangement. ‘The Rose Of Memphis’ is an appropriately bluesy story song, but not all that interesting.

‘Loving You Makes Me Strong’ is quite a nice, straightforward love song with an attractive melody and arrangement. ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ is pleasant rather than outstanding, but benefits from a beautiful harmony from Patty Loveless. ‘Give My Heart A Rest’ has a bright poppy feel and preaches the benefits of positive thinking.

Sales were disappointing, with the album failing to chart. Used copies are now available very cheaply, and it was also reissued last year as a 2on1 CD with its successor, Jewel Of The South.

Grade: B

Album Review: Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘One Time, One Night’

The duo’s sophomore album, released in 1988, continues largely in the same vein as their successful debut disc — combining elements of country and rock with tight harmonies that proved very popular with radio programmers and listeners. Like its predecessor, One Time, One Night was produced by Steve Buckingham, but co-producer Hank DeVito was nowhere to be found this time around. Janis Gill continued to hone her songwriting skills, contributing two compositions co-written with Don Schlitz and one with Gail Davies. Among the collaborations with Schlitz was the album’s lead single “Satisfy You”, an uptempo Cajun-flavored number that continued the Sweethearts’ string of Top 10 hits. It peaked at #5, as did the next single, “Blue to the Bone”, which allowed them to showcase some impressive harmony singing that was somewhat reminiscent of a female version of the Everly Brothers, whose “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” is covered here. The Sweethearts are joined by Vince Gill for what is, in my opinion, one of the very best versions of this song, aside from the 1960 original. It is one of the standout tracks on the album and one of my favorites.

The duo also pay homage to the Beatles with their cover version of the Fab Four’s “I Feel Fine”, which they took to #9. It was the Sweethearts’ seventh consecutive Top 10 hit and they seemed to be on an unstoppable commercial roll when they suddenly and unexpectedly lost their momentum. Their next single, the Don Schlitz/Craig Bickhardt number “If I Never See Midnight Again” fizzled out at #39. This is a beautiful song with gorgeous harmonies that deserved to chart much higher. The song could quite possibly be about the same character in the duo’s earlier hit “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town”, also written by Don Schlitz, after she’s sown her wild oats. Now a little older and wiser, she’s found true love and is ready to forsake the party scene forever:

Now I don’t care if the party starts without me
And when the clock strikes twelve, drink a toast to this old friend.
I’ll be sleeping with my darling’s arms around me
And I don’t care if I never see midnight again.

At the time I thought that, as the album’s fourth and final single, the record might not have received the same promotional push from the label as the earlier releases had. That is still a possibility, but the fact remains that it marked the end of the duo’s winning streak, and they would never chart inside the Top 20 again.

Among the album cuts, “Gone Again”, the tune that Janis wrote with Gail Davies, is the most interesting. It talks about the whirlwind pace of life on the road and the personal sacrifices that come along with fortune and fame, something that the Sweethearts could likely very easily relate to at the time. “You Never Talk Sweet”, which is the other Gill/Schlitz song on the album, is also quite good. The album’s sole misstep is the Wally Wilson/Kevin Welch number “We Won’t Let That River Come Between Us”, which seems a bit forced and doesn’t quite work for me.

The Sweethearts of the Rodeo did not enjoy a long run at the top of the charts. They released two more albums for Columbia, 1990’s Buffalo Zone and 1992’s lackluster Sisters. Neither produced any hits and they were dropped from the Columbia roster. One Time, One Night is the best of their four major-label releases. It is not available digitally, but inexpensive CD copies are easy to find. It’s worth seeking out, along with their debut disc.

Grade: A

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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