My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Byrds

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Someone to Give My Love To’

While the Little Darlin’ Recordings served to get Johnny’s name known, at some point the label lost steam and was folded by Aubrey Mayhew. In fact the last of the Mayhew-Paycheck collaborations was released on the Certron label. Once again Paycheck found himself on the outside looking in.

There´s an old saying that ‘The honky-tonk life kills off the honky-tonk singers’, In Johnny Paycheck’s case, that almost proved to be true as the twin demons of alcohol and drug abuse momentarily brought his career to a halt. Fortunately for Johnny, a talent as formidable as he was, rarely stayed forgotten in Nashville during the early 1970s. While he was drying out, the country music genre was undergoing some changes. Bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Byrds, Poco and Pure Prairie League were adding country sounds to their forms of rock music. Meanwhile, former rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were experiencing success on country radio. Hoping to capitalize on the new energy affecting country music, CBS record executive and fan Nick Hunter tracked Paycheck down (there are stories of him sleeping under freeway bridges and on park benches). Hunter brought Paycheck to the attention of producer Billy Sherrill, who signed him to Epic Records and recorded him as a straight-ahead country balladeer. Success came immediately as the first single “She’s All I Got” reached #2 Billboard/#1 Cashbox/#1 Record World, and the album of the same name reached #4 upon its release in December 1971.

Someone To Give My Love To was Johnny’s second release for Epic, released in May 1972. The title track, released as the first single from the album replicated the success of his first Epic single reaching #1 on Record World (#2 Cashbox /#4 Billboard). This song was written by the successful songwriting team of Bill Rice and Jerry Foster. Paycheck would record many more of their songs.

I could search from now till the end of time
And never find another you
I’m so glad because I know you’re mine
Someone to give my love to

Now I believe my love that you’re one of a kind
For there’s no one else like you
You’re the light of my life so let it shine
Someone to give my love to

[Chorus]
I found happiness is loving you
And I’ll do my best to make your dreams come true
I will follow you to the end of the earth
For my place will be with you
I have taken you for better or worse
Someone to give my love to

Tracy Byrd would cover this song 30 years later.

Next up is “Smile Somebody Loves You”, a generic ballad that makes a decent album track. “Something” by English songwriter George Harrison is a song that has been covered hundreds of times. Welsh torch singer Shirley Bassey had a huge hit with the song while I was living in England, reaching #4 on the UK pop charts while being a top ten record in numerous other countries. Johnny does a nice job with the song, but with the exception of a little steel guitar, the arrangement is nearly a clone of Bassey’s recording.

Johnny wrote “Your Love Is The Key To It All”. A nice ballad that has a generic instrumental backing that sounds like it was intended as a Tammy Wynette track.

The sun always shines in my world down even when the rain should fall
The light of happiness is always shining and your love is the key to it all
One day you just walked into these arms of mine
Lift me up and with your love made me stand tall
Now I know what happiness in life is all about and your love is the key to it all

Your love is the key that fits every lock to every single door in failure’s wall
Now I’m strong enough to do anything I have to and your love is the key to it all
One day you just walked…
Your love is the key to it all

Jerry Jeff Walker never had any real hit records, but he sure wrote a winner in “Mr. Bojangles”. Walker has said he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail, after he was jailed for public intoxication. Contrary to popular belief the song was not inspired by famed black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but by a homeless white man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police.

Walker’s own 1968 recording of the song died at #77, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pushed the record to #9 on the US pop charts (and #2 on the Canadian pop charts) and performers such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and William Shatner have performed the song. Paycheck’s version is performed in a straight-forward manner – it makes a nice album track.

“Love Is A Good Thing” is another song from the Foster-Rice songbook. According to Billboard the song only reached #12 (#13 Record World/#11 Cashbox). Given how frequently I heard the song on country radio, I suspect that the song was more popular in some areas than others. It is a great song

Girl, you give your precious love to me and we’ve got a good thing goin’
There’s no end in sight that I can see cause our love just keeps on growin’
Bring on happiness let us sing love is a good thing
We can take what life may offer us and when trouble comes around
There’s no way it’s gonna break us up nothing gets a good love down
Bring on sunshine let us sing love is a good thing
Yeah love is a good thing let us sing love is a good thing

“A Heart Don’t Need Eyes” and “She’ll All I Love For” are a pair of Paycheck’s compositions, both decent album tracks. The former is a standard weeper that would have made a decent, but not great single for Paycheck (or George Jones for that matter.) The latter is a upbeat love song to his wife .

“The Rain Never Falls In Denver” is a mid-tempo upbeat Foster & Rice love song. It could have made a decent single for someone but as afar as I know, it was never released by anyone as a single.

Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
‘Cause you make the sun shine all the time
Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
Since you came along and brought your love to this heart of mine

One time in Chicago, Illinois
A pretty woman turned my head around
That city woman said she love this poor country boy
Any cloudy in Chicago and the rain came pouring down

But the rain never falls in Denver
‘Cause you make the sun shine all the time
Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
Since you came along and brought your love to this heart of mine

“High On The Thought of You” is a interesting song about a love that is gone. Johnny does an effective job of singing the song

I don’t need the help of the red wine in the glass to ease my mind
I found out the way to forget the way you left me here behind
I drink up a mem’ry and it takes me back to places that I’ve been
I just think about you and I’m high on the thought of you again

The album closes with “It’s Only A Matter of Wine”, the title a takeoff on the title of an old Brook Benton classic. The song itself, written by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston, has nothing to do with Benton’s song.

They’re stackin’ the chairs on the table again they block down the Budwiser sign
`Soon they’ll be callin’ a taxi for me it’s only a matter of wine
Yes it’s only a matter of wine till I’m something that words can’t divine
Yes she’ll soon be out of my mind and it’s only a matter of wine

Outside a big truck is washing the street leaving our dream world behind
While inside I’m washing your mem’ry away cause it’s only a matter of wine
Yes it’s only a matter of wine…
Yes it’s only a matter of wine

Johnny Paycheck was a very distinctive vocalist whose voice could occasionally (but only rarely) be mistaken for George Jones – but for no one else. His ability to put across emotion could be matched by few and exceeded by none. The albums released by Epic are generally very good, but that distinctive instrumental sound and style of the Little Darlin’ years had been lost, replaced by the “country cocktails” sound of Billy Sherrill. Unfortunately, album covers from this era did not routinely list musician credits and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere.

On a few of the tracks, it sound as if tracks were produced first; then a vocalist selected to sing the song. With an artist as distinctive as Paycheck, the vocals cut through the clutter and produce recordings worth hearing.

Grade: B+

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Country Heritage: Clarence and Roland White

During February 2017, we will be reviewing the careers of several country performers bearing the last name ‘White’. Included in this review will be a family band and several excellent male and female singers and songwriters with fairly short discographies.

First, though, we will start with a pair of brothers who are known for their outstanding instrumental prowess. Clarence LeBlanc (June 7, 1944 – July 14, 1973) and his brother Roland LeBlanc (b, April 23, 1938) were born in Maine of French-Canadian parents. The family moved to California in 1954 and at some point before then Anglicized the family name to White.

Roland as the oldest made the first move into music organizing himself and his brothers Eric and Clarence (and sister Joanne) into a family bluegrass band. When the family moved to California the boys won a local talent contest and were hired by a local television station as ‘The Country Boys’. After a two year hiatus in the US Army, Roland rejoined the band in 1961, which was renamed as the Kentucky Colonels. In addition to Clarence on guitar and Roland on mandolin, the band featured Billy Ray Latham on banjo and Roger Bush on bass, with other members being part of the band at various times, most notably fiddler Scott Stoneman. The band became quite popular locally and even managed to score a pair of appearances on the Andy Griffith’s hit television show. The band issued three innovative albums but disbanded in 1965 with the individual members pursuing other interests. Clarence and Roland were in heavy demand as session musicians.

Clarence appeared in combinations with several noted west coast musicians and bands such as Nashville West. Clarence eventually replaced Gram Parsons with the Byrds in 1968 remaining until the group disbanded in 1973.

Roland was of a more traditionalist bent. After the Kentucky Colonels broke up, he spent a few years as one of Bill Monroe’ Bluegrass Boys, then joined Lester Flatts’ Nashville Grass until 1973.

At that point Clarence, Roland and Eric White reunited and formed the New Kentucky Colonels. Unfortunately this was to last but a short time as Roland and Clarence were struck by a drunk driver while loading their equipment into their car after a performance. Roland White suffered a dislocated shoulder, but Clarence was killed in the accident. At the time of his death Clarence had finished four tracks for a planned solo album. Sierra Records released the tracks on a various artists album titled Silver Meteor

After Clarence’s death Roland soldiered onward joining the bluegrass group Country Gazette, remaining there for 13 years. In 1987, he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band, staying with that group until 2000. After that he formed the Roland White Band, which is still active.

Clarence White was a brilliant guitarist, the equal of Doc Watson or Brian Sutton or any other unbelievable guitarist you’d care to name. Most of his best work can be found on the Kentucky Colonels albums. Clarence White was only twenty nine years old when he died so there isn’t an extensive solo discography of his music. I would suggest the Sierra/Rural Rhythm CD 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals, generally available for around $10.00.

Roland White is still with us and his work, like that of Clarence, can be found on the Kentucky Colonels albums, as well as on Country Gazette and Nashville Bluegrass Band albums. Roland is an exceptional mandolin player. He may not be quite as good on the mandolin as Clarence was on the guitar but he is 99% of the way there and better than all but a very few mandolin players. Frankly, I think everything Roland has played is worth hearing, and he is a pleasant vocalist. My favorite of his solo albums is Trying To Get To You (Sugar Hill, 1994), but I’d happily listen to any of his albums.

Album Review: Glen Campbell – ‘Gentle on My Mind’

51cP-6ZEttLBy 1967 Glen Campbell had been a Capitol Records artist for five years. He was well known to the public from his frequent television appearances as well as his stint touring with The Beach Boys in early 1965. He was also in demand as a session musician but he was still having difficulty establishing himself as an A-list solo recording artist.

Campbell’s fortunes began to change in late 1966 when he teamed up with Al De Lory, who produced Glen’s first solo Top 20 country hit “Burning Bridges”, which peaked at #18 in early 1967. Their next notable collaboration was “Gentle on My Mind”, released in June 1967, which became the centerpiece of the album of the same title, released a few months later. As the story goes, Campbell heard composer John Hartford’s original version and quickly recorded a demo version of the song to pitch to DeLory. Unbeknownst to Campbell, DeLory released the demo version as a single after doing a little minor clean-up work, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Gentle on My Mind”, a song about a free spirit who feels genuine affection for a female friend but not enough to settle down with her, is regarded as a classic today, but surprisingly it was not a huge hit at the time. It peaked at #30 on the country chart, far lower than “Burning Bridges”, and it topped out at #62 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart. Employing a strategy that Warner Bros would borrow with Randy Travis nearly two decades later, Capitol re-released “Gentle on My Mind” in mid-1968. This time it performed worse on the country chart (#44) but better on the Hot 100 (#39). It also became a #8 adult contemporary hit as well as a Top 20 country hit in Canada. In 1968 Campbell hosted a variety program on CBS, while The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was on summer hiatus. This led to his own program The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour beginning in January 1969. “Gentle on My Mind” served as the show’s theme song, which eventually pushed the album’s sales past the platinum mark. This is a textbook example of a song that has endured and stood the test of time, despite somewhat underperforming on the charts — and also a lesson in why chart performance should never be used as a measurement of quality.

Gentle on My Mind the album, follows the usual template of its era; the title track is the album’s only single. The rest of the track list is made up of cover versions of songs that had been hits for other artists, and other songs (including one co-written by Glen) that were regarded as filler but still provide for a pleasant listen. First and foremost, one must bear in mind that this is not a country album. At this stage of his career, Campbell was based in Los Angeles, not Nashville, and was working with a pop producer. It was, however, an era when country, pop and adult contemporary relied on orchestrated arrangements, which made it relatively easy for Glen and other artists of the day to score hits in multiple radio formats. There are no fiddles or steel to be found in this collection, although there is a little banjo here and there, and plenty of acoustic guitar picking, which was probably an influence from the then-popular folk music movement.

The album’s most country-sounding track is the Campbell-Joe Allison co-write “Just Another Man”, which is a very nice and understated acoustic ballad. The rest of the album is difficult to categorize, but if pressed, I’d call it melodious late 60s pop, which was the perfect showcase for Glen’s voice. There are country influences on “It’s Over” and “Crying”, both of which had been hits for Roy Orbison. The former was written by Jimmie Rodgers. The latter has always been one of my favorite pseudo-country songs, and I would probably have been blown away by Glen’s version had I never heard the Orbison original. Nobody will ever sing that song like Roy did, but that doesn’t mean that Glen’s interpretation isn’t enjoyable.

There are traces of country on “Bowling Green” which also relies heavily on strings and a double-tracked vocal. In the end it’s more pop than country but still quite good. Ditto for “Catch The Wind”, which has a Byrds-like feel to it. There’s nothing country at all about “You’re My World”, which sounded to me like something Dusty Springfield might have sung, but my research showed that it was Italian in origin, had had been a hit in the English speaking world for British singer Cilla Black.

Gentle on My Mind was meant to capitalize on the success of Glen’s television program, and as such it makes sense that Capitol was aiming for a wider audience than country music typically reached. It contains some country elements, but was clearly intended for mass consumption. The strategy worked; the album sold more than a million copies and Glen’s singles over the next few years for the most part charted significantly higher than anything he’d done up to that point. While this is not an album for hardcore traditionalists, there is plenty here to appeal to those who enjoy the popular music of the late 1960s.

Grade: B+

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘The Present’

516la3wqenL._SY300_Following 2003’s The Next Right Thing, T. Graham Brown released a second independent album entitled The Present. The sixteen-song set was mostly a collection of cover tunes, some even spiritual in nature.

The title track was the project’s only single. It’s a predictable lyric about living life for today that comes off a bit preachy. There is some audible steel framing the chorus, which is nice to hear, although it is pretty faint.

The cover tunes are the bread and butter of the project. The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” is given a note-for-note reading faithful to the original while his version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” has somewhat of a Caribbean feel. “You’ve Got A Friend” is treated to a John Mayer-style bluesy arrangement that showcases Brown’s gospel tendencies. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is faithful, too, and even adds a gospel choir to drive the message home.

Brown has a lot in common sonically with Huey Lewis, so it’s appropriate that he’d cover a Lewis’ tune. “Whole Lotta Lovin’” is treated in Brown’s signature style and he does a great job firmly within his comfort zone. “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” differs very little from the original yet Brown gives a spirited performance opposed to just phoning it in. “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” fits in lyrically with the rest of the album, but comes off very Vegas and Branson-esque, which is far from a compliment. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” is a bit cheesy despite flourishes of organ throughout.

The Present, as a whole, isn’t a terribly enjoyable album and feels like a random covers project and not a cohesive set. Brown does sound comfortable with the material but there’s a feeling of – why? – hanging over the whole album. Once an artist goes independent it’s hard to find even respectable material, so I fully understand why he’d go this route, but that isn’t an excuse for turning in pointless covers that add nothing to any of the songs.

Grade: B-

Fellow Travelers: Pure Prairie League

pure prairie leagueThere were many rock groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s that straddled the line between rock and country music. Most of them (Poco, The Byrds – but only for one album, Matthews Southern Comfort, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills & Nash) were definitely more rock than country.

My favorite of these rock-country/country rock groups was Pure Prairie League. The fact that they were my personal favorite probably explains their relative lack of commercial success.

Who Were They?

Pure Prairie League (“PPL”) was formed in the mid-1960s by Craig Fuller with the band carrying a number of names before then-band member Tommy McGrail came up with Pure Prairie League, named after a fictitious temperance union featured in the 1939 movie DODGE CITY starring Errol Flynn. From 1970 onward (and occasionally before), the band lineup featured a steel guitar.

During the early 1970s Pure Prairie League never received the country airplay they deserved, although many country stations would play an occasional track or two, but their success at college radio stations kept them in the public eye and in 1975 caused their initial label RCA for whom they had cut two albums in 1972 (PURE PRAIRIE LEAGUE and BUSTIN’ OUT) to track them down and re-sign them to the label to do some more recording. The single released by RCA from BUSTIN’OUT benefited from the additional promotion from RCA and charted in 1975 reaching #27 on Billboard’s Pop chart and making a bigger impact in Canada reaching #40 on the Canadian Pop chart and # 19 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart. Although “Amie”, with Craig Fuller on lead vocals, did not chart on the country charts, it did become a staple as a country ‘oldie’ on country stations everywhere. One single, their 1976 cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” did creep into the lower reaches of the Country chart.

Over the years PPL recorded for a number of record labels and had various musicians flowing in and out of the band. PPL has disbanded and reunited at several points along the way. Although “Amie” is the best remembered of their songs, 1980’s “Let Me Love You Tonight” was their biggest hit reaching #10 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary. From 1975-1981 the band charted eight pop singles. As of 2014, the band is still intact and performing about 100 dates annually. PPL also charted nine albums from 1972 to 1981 with TWO LANE HIGHWAY reaching #24 on Billboard’s POP album chart.

What Was Their Connection to County Music?

PPL’s importance to country music can be summarized as follows:

1) “Amie

2) Vince Gill – vocalist from 1978-1981 and lead vocalist on “Let Me Love You Tonight”

3) “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle” – track on 1975 album TWO LANE HIGHWAY, a track which does more than simply name-check the greatest singer in country music history

4) TAKIN’ THE STAGE – really fine two album live set from 1977 that shows that PPL wasn’t a studio creation as the bad nearly replicates the sound of their studio albums. I didn’t list this in my list of the greatest live country albums a few years back because I regard PPL as not quite country, but I sure was tempted to list it

Classic Rewind: David Allan Coe – ‘Willie, Waylon And Me’

Album Review – Chris Hillman – ‘The Other Side’

The_Other_Side_(album)Chris Hillman’s most recent solo project, The Other Side, was released nine years ago. Produced by Herb Pedersen, the fourteen-track album was issued by Sovereign Records.

Among the fourteen songs are nine that Hillman co-wrote with his longtime collaborator Steve Hill. “True Love” is a mid-tempo dobro and mandolin centric number about the joy marriage and children bring to life. “Drifiting,” an acoustic ballad, is gorgeous and is similarly themed to “True Love.” Gospel themed “The Other Side,” adds a nice dose of fiddle into the mix and has an effecting lyric about heaven told through Hillman’s high lonesome bluegrass harmonies.

“Heaven Is My Home” is an excellent gospel themed acoustic ballad about God and the Pearly Gates that’s also beautifully executed. “Touch Me” is more of a country ballad, with acoustic touches, and it’s very, very good. I also quite enjoyed the mid-tempo bluegrass of “The Wheel,” thanks to Hillman’s harmonies and the stellar production bed.

Hillman and Hill also co-wrote “Heavenly Grace,” another excellent gospel flavored bluegrass number with beautiful ribbons of fiddle heard throughout. “I Know I Need You” and “Our Savior’s Hands” aren’t much different, while the latter is far more musically sparse, with acoustic guitar leading the way to frame Hillman’s voice.

Hillman co-wrote “It Doesn’t Matter” with Hill and folk singer Steven Stills and it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, thanks to a production bed that allows room for Hillman’s voice to shine through. “Missing You,” which Hillman wrote with Richard Sellers and Tom Russell, follows the same pattern and is another wonderful song.

Two of the most interesting tracks on The Other Side are covers. Hillman gives a nice country-fried update to The Byrds “Eight Miles High” that transforms from 60s rock into stunning acoustic country. I love hearing the fiddle and mandolin front and center. The other cover is the traditional Celtic folk song “The Water Is Wide.” It’s the album’s centerpiece thanks to the crisp production and Hillman’s clear voice.

By all accounts The Other Side, an acoustic country meets bluegrass meets gospel album is an outstanding project. The musicianship is clean and crisp and none of the material is second-rate. I just wish Hillman’s voice were more prominent on most of the tracks, with his vocals pushed to the front, as opposed to being somewhat behind the instrument bed. That slight change would’ve made The Other Side a slam-dunk for me. But I’m probably just being nit-picky about an album that really doesn’t have any major faults or weaknesses

Grade: B+

Album Review – The Desert Rose Band – ‘Pages of Life’

PagesofLifeIn early 1990 The Desert Rose Band released their third album, Pages of Life, produced once again by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The band’s third album, it was their most commercially successful, and their final charting release.

Chris Hillman and Steve Hill wrote the album’s three singles. Synth heavy ballad “Start All Over Again” peaked at #6, mid-tempo electric guitar and drum led “In Another Lifetime” peaked at #13 (their third single to peak outside the top 10), and steel laced “Story of Love” peaked at #10. All three of the singles are horribly dated by today’s standards, but the Byrds-era steel riffs on “Story Of Love” help it stand slightly above the pack.

At the time of its release, Pages of Life was distinguished for being a harder hitting album, even more so than the band’s two previous releases. Listening to it now, it isn’t terribly overly rock, although the drums are prominent. The album’s main shortcoming with regards to the arrangements is the synthesizers and use of late 80s production techniques that haven’t aged well at all in the last 24 years.

Beyond the three singles, Hillman co-write six more of the album’s tracks, three with Hill, and three more with other writers. Hillman and Hill co-wrote “God’s Plan,” another ballad heavy on synth that utilizes the band’s harmonies framed in a horrible 80s sheen that mixes grossly with the flourishes of steel guitar in the musical bed. “Time Passes Me By” is far more tasteful, with the steel allowed room to breathe, but it’s still not a home run. “Darkness on the Playground” is even better still, livelier, and has a nice sinister production to match its ‘social cause’ story about troubled youth.

Hillman co-wrote “Missing You” with Tom Russell and Richard Sellers. With glorious mandolin and the band’s tight harmonies, its easily one of the more country sounding tracks on Pages of Life, and a nice organic escape from the 80s sheen that suffocates most of the album. John Jorgenson co-wrote “Just A Memory” with Hillman and while track retains the awful 80s sheen, I don’t hate it, mostly because it also has a sunny vibe that keeps it somewhat engaging.

“Everybody’s Hero,” which Hillman co-wrote with Michael Woody, is another of the album’s better tracks. I like the drum work and overly uptempo vibe but Hillman’s lead vocal sounds a little listless given the energy of the backing track. Hillman’s final co-write is courtesy of “Desert Rose,” co-written with Bill Wildes. It sounds like something Emmylou Harris would record, and was originally done by Hillman on his solo album of the same name. It’s a fabulous number and I love how its decidedly country.

Overall Pages of Life is a shoddy album, thanks mostly to bad 80s style production that, as I aforementioned, hasn’t held up in the last 24 years. The songs themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re made less enjoyable by the production.

Grade: B

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘The Desert Rose Band’

desert rose bandThe Desert Rose Band was Chris Hillman’s biggest success in mainstream country music. The initial acoustic lineup, which crystallised on a tour with Dan Fogelburg, comprised Chris, Herb Pedersen, lead guitarist John Jorgensen, and bass player Bill Bryson. Drummer Steve Duncan and steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness were then added to the band, and a fresh yet mainstream sound emerged. They signed a deal with MCA/Curb and launched with their self-titled debut album in 1987, produced by Paul Worley. Their country-rock and traditional country influences combined to make an infectious and irresistible sound which was very radio-friendly.

A sturdy cover of ‘Ashes Of Love’, which Chris had recorded on his solo Desert Rose album, was the group’s first single, and peaked at #26. It was followed by the band’s first top 10 hit, ‘Love Reunited’, which was written by Chris with Steve Hill. The steel-laced song advises a couple not to separate but to work at their relationship. A second Hillman/Hill co-write here is ‘Glass Hearts’, a great up-tempo song about the conflicting emotions of a new relationship, with the fear of getting hurt if it doesn’t last.

Only love can set you free
I’ll open up so she can see
My glass heart will break
Cause it’s made of sand

‘One Step Forward’ almost made it to the top of the Billboard country chart, peaking at #2. A catchy and punchy number about the frustration of a relationship not going anywhere, it was one of three songs Hillman wrote for the record with Bill Wildes, with whom he had written ‘Desert Rose’ (although that song was never actually recorded by the band it gave its name to). The other Wildes co-writes here are both fine songs: the optimistic insistence that ‘Hard Times’ will pass, and the downbeat ‘Leave This Town’, which is about the disappointment of a failed relationship, with the protagonist complaining,

If she’s the one in trouble why’s it me that has to go?

Finally, the album’s fourth and last single topped the charts. ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’, a sad ballad about being the rebound guy who is out of the picture when the ex returns.

Underlining the fact that the Desert Rose Band was a real group and not just a solo Hillman effort, Herb Pedersen sang lead on the country classic ‘Once More’. The wistful thoughts of the ‘One Who Got Away’ are (a Hillman co-write with Peter Knobler) are set to a sweet melody. The band revived Chris Hillman’s song ‘Time Between’, previously recorded by the Byrds, which is actually one of the less interesting songs.

Great harmonies, great musicianship and great songs make this a classic and irresistible record.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’

gildedpalaceThe Flying Burrito Brothers were formed in 1968 by former Byrds members Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. Pianist and bassist Chris Ethridge and steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow were also a part of the original line-up. The band released its first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, on A&M Records the following year. In the forty-five years since the album’s release, country music has been defined and re-defined, and paired with almost every other genre of popular music. As such, it may be a little difficult for modern listeners to truly appreciate how revolutionary and cutting-edge The Flying Burrito Brothers’ fusion of country, rock, folk, R&B and psychadelic rock was at the time. Although it was a commercial failure at the time, the album was hugely influential on country music. Bearing testament to this is the fact that many listeners, though they may be unfamiliar with the band, will likely be familiar with many of the album’s songs.

Hillman and Parsons had a hand in writing the majority of the album’s eleven songs, with the exception of two R&B covers, “Do Right Woman”, a 1976 hit for Aretha Franklin and “Dark Side of the Street”, which was a hit for James Carr the same year. Both songs were written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. Hillman and Parsons wrote most of the remaining songs together.

Many country fans will be familiar with the album’s best track “Sin City”, which was later covered by Dwight Yoakam and K.D. Lang, and “Wheels” and “Juanita”, which were both covered by Parsons’ protege Emmylou Harris. I wasn’t previously famiilar with a pair of unimaginatively titled songs — “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”, respectively — that were written by Parsons with Chris Etheridge. I quite liked the soulful “#1”, but didn’t much care for the R&B and gospel-tinged “#2”, finding the funky fuzzbox effect to be excessive and distracting.

In keeping with the times, there is a pair of topical tunes — “My Uncle”, which tells the story of young man who is planning to head to Canada upon receiving his draft card — and “Hippie Boy”, which deals with the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The latter is a plodding and overly long spoken-word number that I could have done without.

It is hard not to like anything that contains as much pedal steel guitar as this album does, but the rock and psychadelic elements make the production seem a bit dated and I can’t help preferring the cover versions which are more familiar to me. Parsons and Hillman’s vocals are good; their harmonies at times are reminiscent of The Everly Brothers. However, the album is mixed in such a way — again in keeping with the times — that the vocals are nearly drowned out by the instrumentation, something else I found a bit distracting.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is considered important, but to call it a landmark album might be overstating things just a bit. It is primarily interesting because of the future artists — Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle, to name a few — that it influenced. For that reason alone, it is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Crosby, McGuinn & Hillman – ‘Turn Turn Turn’

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Album Review – The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

For more background on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, including insights into the recording sessions, click here

Just as Chris Hillman was enrolling at UCLA, he got a call from his old manager Jim Dickson to join a new band as their Bass Guitar player. The Byrds as they came to be known consisted of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. He’d never picked up a bass guitar before, but his bluegrass background led him to quickly master it while developing his own style with the instrument.

Although he remained quiet on the bands first two releases, he quickly rose to the forefront, and he blossomed as a singer and vocalist after Clark left the band. By 1968, the band was down to just Hillman and McGuinn after Crosby bid his farewell. To replace him they hired Gram Parsons, who along with Hillman changed the sound of the band to reflect a country rock style, which was unheard of in the music industry at the time. This revolution was captured on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which was released on August 30, 1968.

The album found Hillman playing a supporting role yet again, as Parsons and McGuinn shared the brunt of the vocal duties. Parsons, who was little known at the time, was brought to the forefront of mainstream rock because of this album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally supposed to be a reflection of American popular music incorporating elements of Jazz and R&B but Parsons steered the project into a pure country album instead. This move was highly controversial, as Nashville had little interest in embracing a band they thought of as longhaired hippies attempting to sabotage country music. In the mists of all the hoopla, Parsons left the band, and wasn’t even a member when the August release date came around.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was released in April as the project’s lead single. The band heard the tune on a collection of Dylan’s Woodstock demos and thought it appropriate for them to cover. The mid-tempo ballad features an assist from Lloyd Green on Pedal Steel and came more than three years before Dylan would commercially release the track himself. It peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Hillman and McGuinn arranged the second and finale single “I Am A Pilgrim,” which failed to chart. The folk song is a bit more country sounding than the Dylan cover thanks to McGuinn’s banjo and some lovely fiddle playing by John Hartford.

Even more famous than the two singles is Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” a fiddle and steel ballad he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan on a train ride from Florida to Los Angeles. The song is marred in controversy, from claims it wasn’t Parsons but a blind folksinger named Sylvia Sammons who wrote it, to being the tune that got them banned from The Grand Ole Opry. As the story goes, Parsons sang it instead of their planned Merle Haggard cover of “Life In Prison” and thus ticked off the country music establishment and sent shockwaves through the audience. Nonetheless “Hickory Wind” is an excellent song that still endures today.

Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years from Now,” a tune in which McGuinn and Hillman shared lead vocals and Green once again contributed pedal steel. It’s another excellent song and I love the production on it, too, thanks in a large part to Green’s beautiful flourishes of steel.

The remainder of Sweetheart of the Rodeo consisted of cover songs. The band revived soul singer William Bell’s debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which had only been released five years earlier. The band’s version is similar to Bell’s although they take out the horns in favor of steel guitar performed by JayDee Maness.

Songs by The Louvin Brothers and Cindy Walker also appear. Charlie and Ira’s “The Christian Life” doesn’t differ much in The Byrds’ hands, but they manage to turn it into a honky-tonk stunner (with a wonderful lead vocal by McGuinn) and one of the album’s more twang-centric songs. Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” is in similar vain and one of my favorite of this albums’ numbers thanks to the twangy guitar and Hillman’s wonderful lead vocal.

The aforementioned Haggard (and Jelly Sanders) song “Life In Prison” appears here, too. It’s stunning through and through from Manass’ steel guitar to Parsons’ lead vocal. He finds a way to channel Haggard while still making the song his own.

I also adore their version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a folk song about the titular bank robber. The band dresses it up with Hartford’s otherwordly banjo riffs and Hillman’s gorgeous mandolin picking. McGuinn also has a natural knack for storytelling that serves him well as he shoulders the lead vocal duties.

Luke Daniels’ “You’re Still On My Mind” is another Parsons fronted number featuring Maness on steel guitar. The results are glorious as the sunny steel is ear candy for the listener. The album closes with a final Dylan cover, “Nothing Was Delivered.” McGuinn takes the lead and with Green on pedal steel, the results are wonderful.

Full disclosure – before writing this review I’d never listened to an album by The Byrds, Chris Hillman, or Gram Parsons (although I do own Grievous Angel on vinyl). And as a formal introduction it doesn’t get much better than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album is a classic in every sense of the word and a pure delight to listen to forty-six years later. I had an idea what to expect when I went in to listen, but I had no idea what a fabulous steel guitar record this would turn out to be. Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness are masters of their craft and just a pure joy to listen to. If you don’t own your own copy of this album I suggest you run out and buy one as Sweetheart of The Rodeo is a must own for any fan of country or roots music.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.

The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.

Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).

The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.

The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.

Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.

After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.

In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.

Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.

George Jones remembered

george-jones-200a-072408mbWith the passing of George, all the radio heroes of my early childhood, except Ray Price, have gone from the scene. I can’t tell you exactly when I became cognizant of George Jones, as he seemed to have always been there. I remember radio playing songs such as “White Lightning”, “Who Shot Sam?”, “Don’t Stop The Music” , “Just One More” and You Gotta Be My Baby” during the 1950’s and liking the sound of the records, although not necessarily understanding what they were about.

I can tell you when I became a real fan of George Jones and when I started understanding what his music was about. In 1961 I turned nine years old and lived across the street from a kid whose father manifested all of the bad behavior that was revealed in George’s songs. While many sang “the endless ballads of booze and broads” in those less politically correct days, George brought a depth of emotion that few could achieve. But while many singers mined those same waters, few were also as good at singing of other matters such as love and faith. Let’s face it, George Jones could sing even the most mediocre and most maudlin songs with convincing sincerity, so when he had good material to work with, the results transcended what everyone else was doing.

For my money, the very best recordings George Jones ever recorded came during the 1960s. Yes, he became a more nuanced singer later, but he was already 98% at his nuanced peak and his voice was at its absolute peak.

During the 1950s George recorded for Starday and/or Mercury (there were some collaborative efforts between the two labels) and while there was considerable youthful enthusiasm there, the polish had not yet been applied. Towards the end of his run on Mercury a few songs were released that heralded the direction George was going – “The Window Up Above”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, “Tender Years”, and “You’re Still On My Mind”. These songs exhibited a little more careful production than was often the case and were far more introspective than the usual “ballads of booze and broads”. While “You’re Still On My Mind” was not released as a single until after George left Mercury (and accordingly received no promotional push) it was an impressive effort and earned the songwriter Luke McDaniel some additional money when the Byrds included it on their Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album.

I have said many times the 1960s were my favorite era for George Jones recordings. In 1961 George’s recordings started appearing on the United Artists label. While perhaps a bit heavy on the strings and vocal choruses, these recordings feature strong material and find George in fine voice throughout. This era kicked off with a magnificent single, “She Thinks I Still Care” b/w “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” as the B side. The A side shot to #1 where it stayed for six weeks. I thought the song on the B side was the stronger song – and it proved its worth by shooting to #17. (A new recording of the song would reach the top ten in 1971 for Musicor, plus it would be covered by many other artists) . What better description can you have of despair than

Just when the suns shines the brightest
And the world looks alright again
Then the clouds fill the skies
You can’t believe your eyes
Sometimes you just can’t win

Read more of this post

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘My Honky Tonk History’

honkytonkhistoryThe creative renaissance that Travis Tritt enjoyed with the release of Down The Road I Go was unfortunately short-lived; 2002’s Strong Enough was a commercial and critical disappointment and 2004’s My Honky Tonk History, while slightly better than its predecessor, was likewise a mixed bag.

Based on the album’s title, some fans might have been expecting a back-to-basics collection of traditional weepers; if so, those fans were likely quite disappointed, since the album often is anything but traditional. Ironically, the Luke Bryan and Patrick Jason Matthews title track is one of the most rock-leaning tracks Tritt ever released. The track’s production is rather heavy-handed, and this is also the case with the second track “Too Far To Turn Around”. Two tracks into the album I was bracing myself for a tedious listening experience; “The Girl’s Gone Wild” is more mainstream contemporary country but the lyrics are cliched and the whole song sounds like a retread of the Garth Brooks Hit “Ain’t Comin’ Home Til The Sun Comes Up”; a song of which I was never overly fond. The tune seems to have been carefully tailored to the prevailing tastes at country radio, but radio’s response was lukewarm and the tune topped out at #28.

Fortunately things take a turn for the better starting with the fourth track “What Say You”, a duet with John Mellencamp. It’s not a traditional number by any means; it is more in the vein of something that Bob Dylan or The Byrds might have recorded. I’ve never been a fan of Mellencamp’s music but somehow the tune manages to work. It marks Mellencamp’s first –and to my knowledge, only — entry into the country Top 40. The record just missed the Top 20, peaking at #21.

Following “What Say You” is the excellent “Circus Leaving Town”, a traditional steel-guitar drenched number which is by far the album’s best track. “Monkey Around”, a bluesy number written by Delbert McClinton, Benmont Tench, and Gary Nicholson provides a nice change of pace, and Tritt sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself with this tune. “I See Me” is a more mainstream effort, a ballad about a father observing his young son. Earlier in Tritt’s career, this would likely have been a big hit but by this time radio had cooled toward him considerably and the record stalled at #32.

By the last third of the album, the quality begins to taper off again, as the songs become more rock-oriented with offerings like “When Good Ol’ Boys Go Bad”, the anti-commercialism anthem “It’s All About The Money” and the don’t-get-above-your-raisin’ themed “When In Rome”, which closes the album. The two exceptions are the beautiful ballad “We’ve Had It All”, a Tritt co-write with Marty Stuart and “Small Doses” written by Jerry Salley and Chris Stapleton who would later enjoy a stint as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. “Small Doses” is the one tune here that sounds as though it belongs on an album titled My Honky Tonk History.

Though it failed to spawn any major hits or earn gold or platinum certification, My Honky Tonk History did reach #7 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His declining popularity with radio and creative differences with Columbia led to Travis’ departure from the label in 2005. With the major label phase of his career now over, he went on to experience even greater difficulties with the independent Category 5, with whom he signed in 2006. Uneven in quality though it is, My Honky Tonk History does contain a few very good tracks and for those alone it is worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

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: Marty Stuart – ‘Love And Luck’

Marty co-produced his fourth MCA album (released in 1994) with label boss Tony Brown. It lacked the big hitters of its immediate predecessors, with no Tritt duets and no big hits, and the momentum he had developed began to wither away as a result. It’s a fairly solid album with a mixture of country rock and more traditional sounds, and while Marty’s voice was still not distinctive, he interprets the mostly self-penned material convincingly. Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs were recruited to sing harmonies, and Gill in particular is prominent on a number of tracks.

Lead single ‘Kiss Me, I’m Gone’, written by Marty with Bob DiPiero, peaked at a disappointing #26, and deserved to do a little better. The sultry bluesy groove is more memorable than the unremarkable lyric, but overall it is a decent track with an interesting arrangement. It was unwisely followed up by the mid-tempo title track, from the same writing partnership. The banal life advice from a father to a so leaving home is just not very interesting and barely charted. The tender ballad ‘That’s What Love’s About’ has Marty proffering romantic advice about treating a woman well, and is quite attractive with a lovely steel-laced arrangement, but although it was the best of the three singles, it was another flop.

The label may not have picked the right songs for radio, because there is some fine fare here.The pacy kissoff song ‘I Ain’t Giving Up On Love’ was written with the legendary Harlan Howard and feels a little too rushed, but is quite enjoyable, with tight harmonies, with the protagonist, battered by loving the girl who rejected his marriage proposal, stating bouncily,

I ain’t giving up on love, I’m just giving up on you

Harlan also co-wrote the high lonesome ‘Oh What A Silent Night’, with the protagonist facing an empty home after his woman has moved out:

The telephone’s been disconnected
But she wouldn’t call me anyway
But even if she did I wouldn’t answer
Cause there’s not one word left to say

This excellent song is a highlight of the record.

I also really enjoyed the shuffle ‘You Can Walk All Over Me’, written by Marty with Wayne Perry. This one offers unconditional surrender when falling in love

The best of the few outside songs is ‘That’s When You’ll Know It’s Over’, written by Butch Carr and Russ Zavitson, which is a gently sad declaration of undying love through the pain of a broken heart with a pretty melody.

The Byrds’ ‘Wheels’ is quite nicely if undadventurously done, with prominent harmonies from Vince Gill and Paul Franklin’s steel, but it could do with a little more urgency. Marty rattles his way through a speeded up emotionless version Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘If I Give My Heart’ which is oceans away from the intensity of the stunning original and is thoroughly disappointing. However, the worst inclusion on the album was the boringly repetitive and tuneless R&B/rock of ‘Shake Your Hips’, cover of an old R&B hit better known as a Rolling Stones cover. This was a waste of a track.

Halfway through he throws in the oddly titled (and Grammy-nominated) instrumental ‘Marty Stuart Visits The Moon’ which has a kind of bluegrass spaghetti western feel featuring Marty’s mandolin and Bela Fleck on banjo.

Overall, this is quite a good record despite its lower commercial success, which successfully balanced traditional and contemporary. If you can find it cheaply enough (and used copies seem to be fairly easy to find), it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘There Is A Season’

Following the collapse of AMI Records in late 1982, Vern found himself recording for Compleat, another minor label. His first album for Compleat was If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong, released in April 1983. This album contained a re-recording of Vern’s last hit for AMI, “Today My World Slipped Away”, plus the title track, Vern’s first hit for Compleat. The next album was There Is A Season released in April 1984. This is an odd album, with wide and varied production and a somewhat rushed feel to it.

The quasi-title track “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)” was a song from the folk era. Created by Pete Seeger, the song is taken entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the notable exception of the last line) and set to music by Seeger around 1959. The song has been recorded many times, probably by every Hootenanny-era folk act and by many rock acts as well, most notably the Byrds who took it to #1 on the pop chart in 1965. Gosdin was friends with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and McGuinn appears on Vern’s recording of the song. This song was not released as a single, although it received some airplay on country radio. I think it unlikely that it would have made a successful single as it was somewhere between the Byrd’s version and what I think a real country recording of the song would sound like. As much as I love the music of Vern Gosdin, this is among my least favorite recordings of the song (my favorite version was by the Australian group the Seekers). That said, it is not a bad recording.

“Love Me Right To The End” is another of those medium slow ballads that Vern sings so well. I don’t think the song itself is anything special but Vern’s vocal, along with the sympathetic backing and fine fiddle playing by Rob Hajacos makes this a fine track.

“How Can I Believe In You (When You’re Leaving Me)” is another medium slow ballad. Here the Nashville String Machine is a little more in evidence than on the prior track, but Vern’s vocals dominate, which is as it should be.

Jim Rushing was a tunesmith whose songs were recorded by a lot of artists during the 1980s. “Slow Healing Heart” is given an effective treatment by Vern. This song features straight-forward county production, with minimal Nashville Sound trappings.

“I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” would become Vern’s first #1 record in the spring of 1984. The version on this album is NOT the version released as the single. It’s taken at a slightly slower tempo than the hit single, and Vern’s vocal lacks the pizzazz of the single (I wonder if this was recorded at the end of a long session, because “The Voice” sounds tired on this recording). This track is pleasant enough, but if released as a single, I doubt it would have been a top ten record. Fortunately someone saw the potential in the song and had Vern give it another shot.

“What Would Your Memories Do” is a Hank Cochran-Dean Dillon collaboration which fits exactly into Vern’s preferred medium slow groove. This song would reach the top ten during the summer of 1984.

“Slow Burning Memory” is one of my favorite Vern Gosdin songs; however, the version on this album is NOT the version that reached the top ten in early 1985, but a slightly slower and more straight-forward country recording. Vern’s vocal on the single has a bit brighter vocal; moreover, the use of strings on the single greatly enhanced the dramatic effect of the lyrics. Vern and Max D. Barnes penned this number.

“Dead From The Heart On Down” compares death with a man who has lost love. Another Vern Gosdin-Max D Barnes collaboration, the song fits well within the context of this album. Vern and Max also penned “Stone Cold Heart” another medium-slow ballad.

“I’ve Got My Heart Full of You” is little more up-tempo than most of this album, and “You Never Cross My Mind” has a more prominent string arrangement to it than some of the tracks. I don’t think either of these tracks is anything special, but they are well sung and make for enjoyable listening.

I regard this as one of Vern’s weaker albums but I would rate it in the B to B+ range. If the album had contained single versions of “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and “Slow Burning Memory”, I would have nudged up to an A-. Of course when you’re rating an artist and saying one of his weaker albums is worth a B+ you are saying a lot about the artist.

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

The April Spotlight Artist is one of the truly great vocalists in the history of the genre, Vern Gosdin. There are very few male recording artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Geoge Jones, Ray Price and Gene Watson. It takes the ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith – that’s all that is required to be known as “The Voice” and Vern was one of the few to fit the bill.

Born in Woodland, Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-1983) first surfaced in the American conscious during the 1960s in various capacities in the Southern California music scene. Despite inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers bluegrass/country/rock hybrid never achieved great success.

The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.

Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which the Byrds and such later stars as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.

In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity-so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast.

Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

Vern Gosdin never entirely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting his first solo chart hit, a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone” (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By this time he was forty-two years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined brother Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.

Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on smaller labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky-tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.

After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.

As a solo artist, Vern Gosdin charted 41 country chart hits, with 19 top ten records and 3 chart toppers.

Vern was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that, most notably the 2004 album Back In The Swing of Things and the four CD set 40 Years of The Voice issued just months prior to his death in April 2009. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.

“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Join us now as we explore the music of April’s Spotlight Artist, the incomparable Vern Gosdin.

Spotlight Artist: 80s Duos

This month we’ve decided to do something a little different; instead of spotlighting a single artist for the entire month, we’ll be taking a look at the careers of several of the duos that came to prominence during the 1980s:

1.  David Frizzell & Shelly West

This duo’s pedigree was impressive; he was the younger brother of the legendary Lefty Frizzell, while she was the daughter of Dottie West and the wife of another Frizzell brother.   Together they charted 11 singles on the Billboard country charts between 1981 and 1985, the first and best known of which was “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma”.  That #1 single had been featured in the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can, and released on the Viva label, which was distributed by Warner Bros.   They were awarded the CMA’s Duo of the Year trophy twice, and both Frizzell and West scored some solo hits during this period, though neither’s career was to enjoy any longevity.  Shelly’s divorce from Allen Frizzell may have been partially responsible for the end of her professional relationship with David.

2.   The Judds

The most commercially successful of the duos we’re spotlighting this month, the story of this mother-daughter act is well known.  Record producer Brent Maher’s daughter was hospitalized and under the care of nurse Naomi Judd in the early 1980s, which provided the opportunity for Naomi to give Maher a demo tape, leading to a live audition and on-the-spot signing with RCA/Curb.   The Judds were an immediate success, scoring 15 #1 singles between 1983 and 1990.  During that time, they also won seven Academy of Country Music awards, nine CMA trophies, and five Grammys.   A bout with Hepatitis C prompted Naomi’s retirement in 1991, while Wynonna went on to enjoy a highly successful career as a solo artist.  During the 20 years since Naomi’s retirement, the two have occasionally reunited in concert and in the studio.

3.  Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Sisters Kristine Arnold and Janis Gill sang together as children in California and began performing as The Oliver Sisters when they were teenagers.  They later renamed their act after the title of the classic album by The Byrds.   Both women married musicians; Kristine’s husband is Leonard Arnold of the band Blue Steel,  while Janis is the ex-wife of Vince Gill.   The Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed with Columbia Records in 1986, and for a brief time were one of the hottest acts in country music.  Their debut single “Hey Doll Baby” peaked just outside the Top 20.  Their second single “Since I Found  You” reached the Top 10.  Six more Top 10 hits followed.   Though they were never top record sellers, they were staples at country radio in the late 80s.  Their first two albums for Columbia racked up a number of radio hits, but after that the hits began to taper off.   After two more albums failed to generate any more hits, Columbia dropped the Sweethearts from its roster in 1992.  They re-emerged the following year on Sugar Hill Records, for whom they recorded two critically acclaimed albums in 1993 and 1996.

4.  The O’Kanes

Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane recorded three albums for Columbia between 1986 and 1990.  Six of the nine singles released during that period charted in the Top 10, including their best known hit “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You”, which reached the #1 spot in 1987.  Jamie, a native of Toledo, Ohio, had penned “Older Women”,  which had been a #1 hit for Ronnie McDowell in 1981 and  The Judds’ signature hit “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”, which won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1986.  The two met while working as songwriters for the same publishing company.   They disbanded in 1990 and resumed their solo careers.  Brooklyn-born Kane eventually went on to become one of the founders the independent Dead Reckoning Records.

5.  Foster & Lloyd

Country rockers Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd recorded three albums together for RCA between 1987 and 1990, and in the process scored nine charting singles, four of which reached the Top 10.   Prior to landing their own record deal, they wrote “Since I Found You”, which became the breakthrough hit for The Sweethearts of the Rodeo.   Foster & Lloyd’s biggest hit was 1987’s “Crazy Over You”, which rose to #4.  Perhaps a bit too offbeat for conservative country radio in the late 80s, they were more of a critical, rather than commercial, success and disbanded in 1990.   Lead vocalist Radney Foster subsequently signed with Arista Records and enjoyed a moderately successful solo career, while Bill Lloyd went back to earning a living as a session musician.  They reunited in 2011, with the release of It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album together in over 20 years.

As always, we hope that this spotlight will provide our readers with a pleasant trip down memory lane, or perhaps inspire them to explore music that they may have overlooked or are too young to remember.