My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: The Carter Family

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Volume Two’

1974’s Volume Two was the aptly-titled follow-up to Don Williams’ solo debut album on the independent JMI label. Though it doesn’t it contain any of his best remembered songs, it does feature his first Top 10 hit. The track listing is stellar; consisting primarily of songs written by Bob McDill, Allen Reynolds, and Williams himself.

Produced by Allen Reynolds, the album consists of sparsely produced, laid-back songs that are a fry cry from the lush production usually used for country records in the early 70s. Williams’ original composition, the gentle ballad “Atta Way to Go” was the album’s first single, whose chart performance mirrored those of the singles from Volume One, peaking at #13. I was not previously familiar with it but I took to it immediately. The midtempo “We Should Be Together”, written by Allen Reynolds was the next single. It carried Don into the Top 10 for the first time, peaking at #5. Consisting of acoustic guitar and dobro, it is catchy yet mellow. I’d never heard this one before, either, which is surprising since it was Williams’ first significant hit. The third single, “Down the Road I Go”, another Williams compostion, is the closest this album gets to something up-tempo. It’s a pleasant tune, with some nice fiddle and steel work, as well as a vocal chorus that aligns it a little more closely with the mainstream of the day, but it fared poorly on the charts, topping out at #62. From this point forward, though, all of Williams’ records for the next decade would crack the Top 10.

The great Bob McDill contributed two other tracks: the album opener “I Wish I Was In Nashville” and “She’s In Love With a Rodeo Man”. The former is about an aspiring musician who has dreams of making it big in Music City; the latter is about a honky tonk angel who attracts plenty of suitors but only has eyes for a particular rodeo rider. There is an excellent steel guitar solo on this track.

The outlier on the album is the ballad “I Don’t Think Much About Her No More”, which features a subtle string section alone with the acoustic guitar and pedal steel. Originally recorded by its author Micky Newbury in 1969, it was covered many times, sometimes under its alternate title “Poison Red Berries” by artists such as Eddy Arnold, George Hamiton IV, Bobby Bare, The Carter Family, Jan Howard, and Tammy Wynette. It’s more polished than the rest of the album but still the perfect vehicle for Williams’ baritone.

Although it doesn’t contain any of Williams’ best remembered hits, Volume Two is an excellent collection that has aged well and is worth a listen. It is available on a two-for-one CD along with Volume One.

Grade: A

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Classic Rewind: The Carter Family – ‘Sweet Talking Man’

Album Review: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt – ‘The Complete Trio Collection’

81a3vfrcssl-_sx522_-2Thirty years ago, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt finally cleared their schedules and went into the studio to record the album they had talked about making for years. Released in March 1987, Trio was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling more than four million copies and winning two Grammy Awards. A follow-up album was released in 1999. The ladies reportedly would have liked to have recorded a third volume, but sadly Parkinson’s disease has rendered Ronstadt unable to sing. There was however, enough unreleased material from the first two albums to piece together a third collection. It consists of songs that were not used for the first two projects, as well as alternate takes and mixes of some of the songs that were used. These alternate takes/mixes sometimes differ radically from the previously released versions and at other times the changes are more subtle.

The Complete Trio Collection, released last week via Rhino Records is a three disc set consisting of remastered versions of the first two albums and a third disc of mostly previously unreleased material. Presumably most of our readers are familiar with Trio and Trio II, so I will focus on the third disc.

Despite the title, this is not a complete collection of the recordings Parton, Harris and Ronstadt made together. Noticeably absent is “Palms of Victory”, which was included in Emmylou’s 2007 Songbird collection and I assume that are other commissions. “Palms of Victory” was recorded in 1978 during one of the ladies’ earlier recording sessions from which no album was ever released. Two tracks from those sessions – “Mr. Sandman” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” were released on Emmylou’s solo albums in the early 80s. Parton’s and Ronstadt’s vocals were removed from the single version of “Mr. Sandman”, since they were signed to different labels at the time.

Also labeled as unreleased is “Softly and Tenderly”, one of my favorite hymns. This track too was included in the Songbird collection. It concludes with a majestic vocal performance by Ronstadt and is well worth hearing again.

Dolly’s “Wildflowers” was a single released from the original album that reached #6 in the spring of 1988. It was a semi-biographical number on which she sang lead, with Emmylou and Linda providing the harmony vocals. The alternate take provided here has a completely different arrangement, with each of the ladies taking a turn singing the lead. The overall effect is more in the vein of “Palms of Victory” and the music that Emmylou made with Brian Ahern in the 70s. It’s quite different from the version we’re all familiar with but I liked it quite a lot. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” is another Dolly composition that she has revisited many times over her career. An Emmylou-led version appeared on Trio II, but the alternate version has Dolly singing the lead. It is also faster paced with a lot of handclaps. Quite different from the previous version but it works equally well.

“Making Plans” was one of the last hits that Dolly had enjoyed with Porter Wagoner. A three-part harmony version appeared on the first Trio collection. The newly released version features Dolly singing solo. It’s a beautiful performance and for a song about being alone, a single voice is quite effective. “My Dear Companion” is given a similar treatment — omitting Dolly’s and Linda’s harmony vocals. Although Emmylou does a lovely job singing it, I do miss hearing Dolly and Linda echoing her words on the chorus. “Lover’s Return” from Trio II appears here as a Linda solo. Other tracks such as “I’ve Had Enough” and “Farther Along” are remixed so subtly that many fans might not notice the differences at first.

The disc also includes a number of previously unreleased songs that are not alternate takes or remixes – i.e., “new” material. Some of them we’ve heard before in different versions: Dolly’s “My Blue Tears” done in three-part harmony here, Emmylou’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and “Grey Funnel Line” which was previously recorded by Emmylou with Irish singers Mary Black and Dolores Keane. Others are less familiar. Dolly does a beautiful job on Tony Arata’s “Handful of Dust”, although I still prefer Patty Loveless’ more uptempo version. “You Don’t Knock” is a wonderful uptempo Gospel number, and “Are You Tired of Me” is a Carter Family classic from 1927. Dolly’s original composition “Pleasant as May” was written and recorded during the 1986 sessions but sounds like something that could have come from the Carter Family era.

Rhino Records enjoys a well deserved reputation for the way it handles reissues of classic material, and for that reason I decided to purchase the physical CD set instead of downloading from iTunes as I usually buy music nowadays. I must say that I’m a bit disappointed in the packaging. I hate digipaks and was hoping for a more deluxe package similar to Songbird, but given the economic realities in the music industry today, the decision to go with cheaper packaging is understandable. That is really my sole complaint about the collection. It may be overkill for casual fans but for diehards like me, this collection is a real treat.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Full Circle’

91pRGFM-iWL._SX522_Twelve years after winning a Best Country Album Grammy, Loretta Lynn has finally gotten around to releasing a follow-up album. Not only is Full Circle well worth the wait, it is bound to be warmly received by fans who were disappointed in the genre-bending Van Lear Rose. Produced by Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, Full Circle finds Lynn singing traditional folk songs she grew up with, remakes of her own hits and some new songs, with the occasional traditional pop standard thrown in. She moves through the somewhat eclectic track list effortlessly and seamlessly, sounding equally at home with each musical style represented.

I was blown away by Lynn’s vocals, which are showing no sign of diminishing with age. Her voice is stronger now than it was on Van Lear Rose and she could easily hold her own vocalists less than half her age. After some introductory studio banter the album gets underway with a remake of “Whispering Sea”, which is the first song that Loretta ever wrote, and was included as the B-side of her first single “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”. It’s the first of three remakes of old Lynn hits; the other two are 1965’s “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven” and 1968’s “Fist City”, which even at age 83, Loretta pulls off with gusto and credibility.

A pair of traditional pop standards are a little unexpected on a Loretta Lynn album, but they fit in surprisingly well with the rest of the album. “Secret Love”, first introduced by Doris Day in 1953, gives Loretta a chance to demonstrate that she hasn’t lost any vocal range. It has a simple yet sophisticated twin-fiddle arrangement, and is reminiscent of the Nashville Sound records that her old producer Owen Bradley used to make with Patsy Cline. Ditto for “Band of Gold”, a pop hit from 1955. Don Cherry’s doo-wap style is replaced with Bob Wills-type of arrangement with some excellent steel guitar.

She also covers some more contemporary numbers, including Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” and T. Graham Brown’s “Wine into Water.” Elvis Costello provides some subtle harmony vocals on the toe-tapper “Everything It Takes” a new track that Lynn wrote with Todd Snider. It’s reminiscent of the type of record Loretta made in her heyday, although the message is delivered in a less fiery and more world-weary manner. It’s my favorite song on the album. She also duets with Willie Nelson on “Lay Me Down”, a quiet acoustic number that finds the two legends looking with resignation and acceptance toward an uncertain future.

Loretta looks back at songs from her childhood: the traditional “In The Pines” and The Carter Family’s “Black Jack David” and “I Never Will Marry”. I wouldn’t have minded an entire album of tunes like this. Her own composition, a new song called “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?” has a similar old-timey sound. It finds her looking back on her accomplishments, reflecting on her legacy and asking, “Who’s gonna miss me when I’m gone?” The answer to that, of course, is everybody. It is hard to imagine country music without Loretta Lynn but fortunately there are no any indications that she will be saying her farewells anytime soon. It’s a bit early in the year to start making predictions about the best album of the year, but it’s hard to imagine how anything will top this one. I cannot recommend it enough.

Grade: A+

The best reissues of 2015

As is always the case, most of the best reissues of American Country Music come from Europe. There are several reasons for this:

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. What this means is that all recordings made before 1963 have lost their copyright protection in Europe.

2 – The European customer for country music is more traditionally oriented than American audiences. This holds true for many forms of music including rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, pop standards, you name it. European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, have not discarded the past.

3 – American Record labels simply don’t care – I’d elaborate, but there’s no point to it.

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2015 but became generally available during 2015 through various markets.

We’ll start off with two box sets from the gold standard of reissue labels, Bear Family:

chuck wagon gang1. THE CHUCK WAGON GANG – THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1936-1955)

Released in late 2014, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family five disc set compiles the gospel recordings of Dad Carter’s family gospel group. Marty Stuart wrote the forward to the accompanying book.

This Carter Family is NOT related to the Carter Family clan associated with A.P., Sara, Mother Maybelle, and June Carter, but was a successful gospel group that was with Columbia Records from 1936 to 1975, selling thirty-nine million records in the process. Consisting of D.P. (Dad) Carter and son Jim (Ernest) and daughters Rose (Lola) and Anna (Effie), this group was formed in 1935 in Lubbock, Texas, and became one of the most popular gospel groups of its time, performing a very traditional form of country gospel music. They were the first group to record Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away”.

The group continues to this day, although all of the original members have since passed away. This set won’t be to everyone’s taste in gospel music so I’d suggest that you listen to a few tracks before purchasing the set. The humble sincerity and beauty of the singing will likely have you reconsidering your idea of gospel music.

singing fisherman2. JOHNNY HORTON – THE SINGING FISHERMAN: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS OF JOHNNY HORTON
Also released in late 2014, this nine disc set chronicles the recording career of one of the brightest stars of the Louisiana Hayride, whose life was cut short in 1960 when he was killed in an automobile accident. Some may recall that Johnny Cash was one of his best friends and some may remember that his widow was also the widow of Hank Williams Sr.

To the extent that Johnny Horton is remembered today, it is for the recordings he made with Columbia Records starting in 1956 with “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m A One Woman Man”, songs thirty years later covered for hits later by Dwight Yoakam and George Jones.
Johnny’s biggest hit was “The Battle of New Orleans” which reached #1 on both the pop (six weeks) and country charts (ten weeks)in 1959. He had two other #1 records in “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” (1959) and “North to Alaska” released ten days after his death.

Those great Columbia Recordings are all here, but Johnny was an active recording artist from 1952 forward, recording with Abbott Records and Mercury Records, as well as some smaller labels. The Abbott Recordings were pretty pedestrian but Johnny cut some real treasures for Mercury, some of which were regional hits. Those long-lost earlier recordings are here as well, sounding as good as they will ever sound. These recordings encompass Johnny singing straight country , western, rockabilly and historical saga songs. The set comes with two hardcover books.

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Classic Rewind: The Carter Family – ‘Hearts Of Stone’

Classic Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian’ (1964)

bitter tearsRegardless of when he actually started wearing black, the legend of the ‘Man In Black’ starts here with this album.

By the time Bitter Tears was released, Cash had issued seven albums on Sun Records and eleven studio albums (including a Christmas album) on Columbia. This album, his eighteenth, although not the first album built around a theme, was the first album built around a cause.

Released in October 1964, the tracks on the album focus exclusively on the history and plight of Native Americans, with a strong focus the uncaring and unfair treatment of the original peoples of North America. Although the album only contains eight songs, the album itself ran the usual thirty minutes expected of an album during the 1960s.

It says much about the stature Cash already had as an artist that Columbia allowed him to release as noncommercial an album as Bitter Tears.

The album opens up with “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”, by Native American Peter La Farge. The song is about the loss of Seneca land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s.

As long as the moon shall rise as long as the rivers flow
As long as the sun will shine as long as the grass shall grow
The Senecas are an Indian tribe of the Iroquios nation
Down on the New York Pennsylvania Line you’ll find their reservation
After the US revolution corn planter was a chief
He told the tribe these men they could trust that was his true belief
He went down to Independence Hall and there was a treaty signed
That promised peace with the USA and Indian rights combined
George Washington gave his signature the Government gave its hand
They said that now and forever more that this was Indian land
As long as the moon shall rise…

On the Seneca reservation there is much sadness now
Washington’s treaty has been broken and there is no hope no how
Across the Allegheny River they’re throwing up a dam
It will flood the Indian country a proud day for Uncle Sam
It has broke the ancient treaty with a politician’s grin
It will drown the Indians graveyards corn planter can you swim
The earth is mother to the the Senecas they’re trampling sacred ground
Change the mint green earth to black mud flats as honor hobbles down
As long as the moon shall rise.

Johnny Cash penned “Apache Tears”, a bitter song about the mistreatment of the Apaches.

“Custer” by Peter La Farge is a Native American take on what happened at Little Big Horn. While conventional folklore often features General George Armstrong Custer as a heroic commander and victim, this song shows him as a vain and pompous individual as viewed from the Native American perspective:

Now I will tell you `busters`
I`m not a fan of Custer`s;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.
To some he was a hero,
But to me his score was zero;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Now George, he`d had victories,
But never massacres;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Old George had done his fightin`
Without too much excitin`
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

When the men were away at huntin`
Old Custer would come in pumpin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

He`d kill children, dogs and women,
With victories he was swimmin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

My favorite song on the album, “The Talking Leaves” was penned by Johnny Cash and tells the story of Sequoia (or Sequoyah), the Native American who developed written version of the Cherokee language, previously only an oral language.

Sequoia’s winters were sixteen
Silent tongue spirit clean
He walked at his father’s side
Across the smoking battle ground
Where red and white men lay all around
So many here had died
The wind had scattered around
Snow white leaves upon the ground
Not leaves like leaves from trees
Sequoia said, “What can this be?”
“What’s the strange thing here I see?”
“From where come leaves like these?”
Sequoia turned to his father’s eyes
And he said, “Father you’re wise
From where come such snow white leaves
With such strange marks upon these squares
Not even the wise owl could put them there
So strange these snow white leaves”
His father shielding his concern
Resenting the knowledge Sequoia yearned
Crumbled the snow white leaves
He said, “When I explain then it’s done
These are talking leaves, my son
The white men’s talking leaves”
The white man takes a berry of black and red
And an eagle’s feather from the eagle’s bed
And he makes bird track marks
And the marks on the leaves they say
Carry messages to his brother far away
And his brother knows what’s in his heart

The only single released from the album was another La Farge composition, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. The song tells the story of the life and death of Ira Hayes, a young US Marine of Pima descent, who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but died drunk and broke on the reservation a few short years later. The song made it to #3 on Billboard’s country singles chart

Ira Hayes…
Ira Hayes…
Call him drunken Ira Hayes,
He won’t answer anymore,
Not the whiskey drinking Indian,
Or the marine that went to war.

“Drums” is yet another La Farge composition, this song a bitter about the US government’s efforts to suppress Native American culture:

From the Indian reservation to the governmental school
Well, they’re goin’ to educate me to the white men’s Golden Rule
And I’m learning very quickly for I’ve learned to be ashamed
And I come when they call Billy though I’ve got an Indian name

And there are drums beyond the mountain
Indian drums that you can’t hear
There are drums beyond the mountain
And they’re getting mighty near

And when they think that they’d changed me
C ut my hair to meet their needs
Will they think, I’m white or Indian
Quarter blood or just half breed

Let me tell you, Mr. Teacher
When you say, you’ll make me right
In five hundred years of fighting
Not one Indian turned white and there are drums

“White Girl” is a La Farge song about the ill-fated love between a white girl and a Native American man. The girl declined to marry him because he was a Native American. The song also addresses the problems of alcohol among the Native Americans.

The album closes with “The Vanishing Race”, a song credited to Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton. Horton, Cash’s best friend and fishing buddy had died in a car crash four years before the release of this album. The song tells of a Native American viewing the future of his people

Oh, wagon trains rollin’ along
They fade from my visions and in time will be gone
I, I see an eagle in space
And my people will follow a vanishing race

Oh, now great spirits on high
Please spare them the sorrow you show to my eye
Now my blankets are roll
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
A vanishing Navajo

Bitter Tears reached #2 on Billboard’s country album charts and reached #47 on Bllboard’s all genres album chart. Although Columbia Records didn’t give either the album or single much promotional support, Cash promoted both ceaselessly, and would continue to support Native American causes throughout his life. Although Cash had no Native American blood in him (at one time he thought he might be part Cherokee), in 1966 Cash was adopted by the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan.

There are no up-tempo songs on this album and, other than “The Talking Leaves”, there are no really happy songs either. Despite that, this is my favorite Johnny Cash album, a thoroughly thoughtful and important endeavor on the part of Johnny Cash and his usual crew of the Carter Family and the Tennessee Three, augmented by ace musicians Norman Blake and Bob Johnson.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Classic Rewind: Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters – ‘Keep On the Sunny Side’

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Haden Triplets – ‘The Haden Triplets’

haden tripletsThe New York born and LA based sisters, Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden, daughters of a jazz musician, have been around for years, mainly performing cameos on rock albums. But taking center stage for the first time, their debut album produced by Ry Cooder, showcases their sibling harmonies on the old-time country and folk material they heard from relatives in their childhood. Their grandparents were among the earliest Opry performers and were friends and rivals of the Carter Family, with their own radio show based on the family farm in Missouri.

The triplets open with the enchantingly pretty version of the Webb Pierce country classic ‘Slowly’, performed with delicate harmonies. This outstanding track is wonderful, and my favourite track here.

One of my favorite Carter Family songs, the plaintive ‘Single Girl, Married Girl’, is also very charming, and is being promoted as a single. Another Carter family classic, ‘Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone’ is carefully measured, with Cooder adding a booming male backing vocal in support. Also from the Carters’ songbook, the less known and more rhythmic ‘Oh Take Me Back’ picks up the tempo

The women’s high sweet harmonies are suitably angelic on Bill Monroe’s gospel waltz ‘Voice From On High’, which is a highlight. Monroe’s graveyard-set ‘Memories Of Mother And Dad’ is less remarkable, but still solid.

Their winsome versions of the Louvins’ ‘My Baby’s Gone’ and ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ are both gorgeous, and perfectly suited to the trio. Their lesser-known tragic tale ‘Tiny Broken Heart’ is another charming track.

The Stanley Brothers’ mournful ‘Lonesome Night’ is delivered at a slow and stately pace, with particularly beautiful guitar work from Cooder, whose work is tasteful and exemplary throughout. They don’t change the lyric, which is written from a male perspective, which makes the interpretation sound like a ghostly one.

The playful ‘Billy Bee’ is performed almost acappella with very faint strains of music very low in the mix.

One of the few disappointments is country standard ‘Making Believe’, a beautiful song but here the vocals are a little too self-consciously pretty and not emotional enough. I just didn’t believe it. Finally, the most modern song, Nick Lowe’s ‘Raining Raining’ is just okay, with an ethereal lead vocal from Tanya, but it does feel out of place.

Overall, though, this is a delightful album for lovers of the oldest recorded country music.

Grade: A

Album Review: Irene Kelley – ‘Pennsylvania Coal’

pennsylvania coalPennsylvania-born Irene Kelley is one of the finest songwriters around. A decade on from her excellent Thunderbird album she is back on record in her own right. She wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, and all have pretty melodies which showcase her pure, beautiful voice. Produced by Mark Fain, the music is in that overlap between acoustic country and bluegrass, and is beautifully played.

The opening ‘You Don’t Run Across My Mind’ is a thoughtful song about someone who the protagonist can never forget despite the passage of time. Darrin Vincent sings harmony on this attractive tune. It is co-written with Peter Cooper, as is the even prettier ‘Feels Like Home’. The latter has bluegrass’s Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals and some lovely fiddle lines from Stuart Duncan (who plays throughout). A cold rainy day in Nashville brings reminders of Irene’s Pennsylvania birthplace, whose weather is remembered with less fond nostalgia than many songs about childhood:

You can take a trip but you can’t go back
Too many times I’ve heard that
It’s prettier in clouded memory
Just today a north wind came
Tapped my shoulder
Brought the grey
And a chill I know by heart came over me

Feels like home
Though I never felt at home there
And I know that the winters were too long
Like the wind against the shutters
In a town I used to know
Any time it looks like rain
Feels like home

‘Pennsylvania Coal’ (written with Thomm Jutz) is an atmospheric story of the Pennsylvania coal country where Kelley’s immigrant grandfather was a miner, and later a farmer. Its honesty and emotional insight rivals some of the great coalmining songs from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Family is an important theme running through the album, with Irene’s daughters Justyna and Sara Jean contributing both with harmonies and songwriting. The record even closes with a bonus track, ‘You Are Mine, on which Kelley’s daughter Sara Jean sings the lead over her mother and sister’s trio harmony. Written by the three of them, it has a charming old fashioned feel.

The delightful ‘My Flower’ uses the traditional ‘You Are My Flower’ (which Irene sang as a lullaby for her children as babies) as its theme. It was written with Irene’s daughter Justyna, who also sings harmonies alongside Claire Lynch. Irene then segues into a few lines of the original song, accompanied by herself on autoharp, which is charming.

Lynch also sings background on ‘Angels Around Her’, about Irene’s relationship with her late mother, using her collection of angel-themed ornaments as the focus of the song. Dale Ann Bradley sings harmony on the brooding ‘Sister’s Heart’, a heartfelt tribute to Irene’s beloved sister, which she wrote with Jon Weisberger. Bradley is also present on the idealistic ‘Garden Of Dreams’, inspired by Kelley’s daughters, which is a beautiful and poetic ballad.

Trisha Yearwood sings harmony on the graceful waltz ‘Better With Time’, a mature love song (written with Peter Cooper and Justyna) about the way love matures and grows, with a delicate stripped down arrangement.

Another outstanding song, ‘Breakin’ Even’ (written with Mark Irwin) takes a bleakly moving look at the pain of a breakup. ‘Things We Never Did’ is full of tender regret at lost chances, with its wistful look at what was “nearly a dream come true”. Carl Jackson’s harmony and Jeff Taylor’s tasteful accordion add the perfect finishing touches to the arrangement.

Rhonda Vincent sings a close harmony on the quirky upbeat ‘Rattlesnake Rattler’, in which part of a dead snake is incorporated into a guitar.

This is a lovely sounding record, and one filled with moving songs, beautifully sung.

Grade: A

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin'” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Pop Stoneman and the Stoneman Family

stoneman familyMost people trace the dawn of recorded country music back to the famous Bristol sessions of 1927, from which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family rose to prominence. While I am not sure that even Ernest V. Stoneman (May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968) represents the dawn of recorded country music, he has a far better claim to it than do Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters.

Born in 1893 in Carroll Country, Virginia, near the mining community of Iron Ridge, Ernest Van Stoneman was raised by his father and three cousins who taught him traditional Blue Ridge Mountain songs. Ernest married Hattie Frost in 1919. He and his wife set about having a family, eventually having 23 kids, of which 13 lived to be adults. Stoneman worked at various jobs and played music for his own entertainment. He was a talented musician who could play (and make) a variety of instruments, including banjo, guitar, fiddle and autoharp, although the autoharp would become his trademark during his recording career.

Legend has it that Stoneman heard a recording by Henry Whittier, a popular artist of the time and a friend of her father’s (according to daughter Roni), and swore he could sing better. In 1924 he traveled to New York and received a recording contract. The first single, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, was issued on the Okeh label and became the biggest hit he ever had. Sales figures for the 1920s are not terribly reliable, but several sources have sales pegged at four million copies sold – a remarkable total for the time and certainly one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind – Mother Maybelle Carter – ‘Wildwood Flower’

A truly special performance from the pioneer who helped define our modern definition of Country Music. Included here is rare footage of her discussing the famed Bristol Sessions from 1927, known as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” Those sessions featured her, A.P., and Sara Carter (The Carter Family) along with Jimmie Rogers and others.

The song she sings here, “Wildwood Flower” was written circa 1860 with lyrics by  Maud Irving and music by Joseph Philbrick Webster. The original title of the song was “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.” It became an American standard when The Carter Family recorded it on the Victor label in 1928.

“Wildwood Flower” would see a second life when Hank Thompson and Merle Travis recorded it as an instrumental in 1955. Their version would peak at #5 on the charts that year.

Actress Reece Witherspoon also has a version of the song, performing it in the film Walk The Line. She won The Best Actress Oscar for portraying June Carter Cash (Mother Maybelle’s daughter) in the 2005 film.

Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 68.

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 6

For part six of this series, as always, just some songs I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit, (although I feel free to comment on other songs by the artist).

Forgive and Forget” – Eddie Rabbitt (1975)

Prior to this, Eddie was known, if at all, as a songwriter. This record got to #12, but did better than that in some markets, and gave Rabbitt his first significant hit. The next song “I Should Have Married You” got to #11; after that the next 33 singles would crack the top 10 with 19 of them getting to #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox.

Ladies Love Outlaws” – Jimmy Rabbitt and Renegade (1976)

The title track of a 1972 Waylon Jennings album, for some reason RCA never issued the song as a Jennings single, although it got considerable airplay (it didn’t chart because Billboard did not track non-singles airplay at the time). Jimmy’s version was good (Waylon’s was better) and got to #80, his only chart appearance.

Ain’t She Something Else” – Eddy Raven (1975)

Eddy’s second chart single reached #46 and became a #1 record for Conway Twitty in 1982. It took Raven eight years and 16 singles to have his first top 10 hit. Can you imagine any artist being given that much slack today

“Whatcha Gonna Do With A Dog Like That” – Susan Raye (1975)

Susan Raye had the Buck Owens organization behind her, was very pretty, and sang well. Despite those advantages, she never really became a big star, probably because her heart wasn’t in it. This song got to #9, one of six solo top tens she was to enjoy. In theory “(I’ve Got A) Happy Heart” was her biggest hit, reaching #3, but she got so much pop radio action on “L.A. International Airport” that it sold a million copies.
Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.

Country Heritage Redux: Charley Pride (1938 – )

An updated version of the article originally published by The 9513:

While he’s not exactly forgotten, it’s been twenty-five years since Charley Pride received much airplay on country radio – which seems unbelievable considering the dominant force he was on the charts. For the ’70s, Billboard has Charley listed as its third ranking singles artist behind only Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. Pride also shows up as fourth on the Billboard Country Album chart for the same decade, while Cashbox has him as its number one artist for the period of 1958-1982.

Younger listeners who have not previously heard Pride will have a real treat coming when they sample his music from the ’60s and ’70s. He has a very distinctive voice; one not easily forgotten once it’s been heard.

Originally planning on a career in Major League Baseball, Pride grew up in the cotton fields near Sledge, Mississippi, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. For whatever reason, Pride’s taste in music leaned towards country – perhaps he sensed (correctly) that his voice fit the genre perfectly. While pitching in semi-pro baseball in Montana, Pride was “discovered” by Red Sovine, who urged him to try his luck in Nashville. Pride did just that after his hopes of a career in baseball were gone, and soon thereafter he came to the attention of legendary producer Jack Clement. Clement did everything within his power to get Pride recorded and on a label, going so far as to self-producing the singer’s early recording sessions and shopping the masters. Clement even eventually persuaded Chet Atkins to add Pride to RCA.

Racial relations have come a long way since Pride emerged as country music’s top star and its first African-American superstar. The situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued his first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. DJs of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were known to all within the industry, so the records were destined to get at least some airplay.

Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.

The first album, appearing in 1966, was Country Charley Pride; it had solid country arrangements and contained no hit singles as it was basically an album designed to introduce Pride to the marketplace. The songs included:

“Busted” — a 1963 hit for Johnny Cash & the Carter Family, and later a successful single for Ray Charles and John Conlee. It was written by the Dean of country songsmiths, Harlan Howard.

“Distant Drums”
— this Cindy Walker-penned song was a posthumous #1 for Jim Reeves in early 1966–the first of several such songs for Reeves.

“Detroit City” was a 1963 hit for Bobby Bare. Earlier in 1963, Billy Grammer had a hit with the song, recording it under the title “I Want To Go Home.” Mel Tillis and Danny Dill wrote this classic song.

“Yonder Comes A Sucker” — Jim Reeves took this self-penned song to #4 in 1955.

“Green Green Grass of Home”
— Johnny Darrell and Porter Wagoner hit with this Curly Putman classic in 1965, Porter scoring the much bigger hit of the pair.

“That’s The Chance I’ll Have To Take”
— label mate Waylon Jennings had a minor hit with this in 1965.

“Before I Met You”
— charted at #6 for Carl Smith in 1956. Smith’s star had faded by 1966, but he had been one of the biggest stars in the genre during the 1950s. This was Charley’s second single, issued in mid-1966. It would be the last non-charting single for Charley Pride for the next 28 years.

“Folsom Prison Blues”
— this was not as obvious a trendy pick as you might think. Johnny Cash took this song to #4 in 1956 – the #1 hit version and album were still 18 months away at the time this album was issued.

“The Snakes Crawl At Night”
was Pride’s first single, and while it did not chart nationally, it got significant regional airplay in the south and southwest. It was, in fact, the song that introduced me to Charley Pride.

“Miller’s Cave”
— Hank Snow had a hit in 1960 and Bobby Bare had one in 1964 with this Jack Clement-penned song (both top ten records). Clement was not simply padding his coffers by having Charley record his songs, as he was a top-flight songsmith. He wrote several Johnny Cash hits, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” (Cash’s top charting record), and “I Guess Things Happen That Way.”

“The Atlantic Coastal Line”
— this was the “B” side of “The Snakes Crawl At Night” but it got some radio airplay. Mel Tillis wrote this song.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind”
— Jack Clement wrote this song, which was never a big hit, although Mac Wiseman had a terrific record on the song in 1968, and many others recorded it as well.

Normally, the strategy of introducing an artist to the public through an album entirely composed of oldies does not succeed. This time, however, the “country classics” strategy worked to perfection in priming the demand for more. Subsequent Charley Pride albums would feature newer songs and more of Pride’s own hits – lots of hits. Before long, all of Nashville’s leading writers were pitching their best material to him, with Dallas Frazier being his early favorite. So successful was Pride that an incredible string of 35 consecutive songs reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox Country Charts. Starting with 1969′s “Kaw-Liga” and ending with 1980′s “You Almost Slipped My Mind”, every Charley Pride single (except the 1972 two-sided gospel record “Let Me Live”/”Did You Think To Pray” and the 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” NFL special souvenir edition) reached #1. After the streak ended, Charley would have another 6 songs that were #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox. “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” released in 1971, would, of course become his signature song.

In addition to the above milestones, Charley Pride recorded a live album in 1968 at Panther Hall in Dallas, simply one of the best live albums ever. During his career, RCA issued three best of Charley Pride albums and two Greatest Hits albums with absolutely no overlap between the albums; moreover, several major hits were left off completely. He won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the ACM’s Pioneer Award (a fitting award, if ever there was one), and several Grammy awards. Global sales reportedly brought 30 of his albums up to gold status.

During the CD era, Pride was very poorly served, at least until recently. At one point in the mid-1990s, he re-recorded 25 of his classic songs for Honest Entertainment, using the original arrangements, producer Jack Clement, and as many of the original musicians as he could find. For several years these re-makes were the only versions available, as RCA neglected its back catalog of anyone not named Elvis Presley.

Charley Pride continues to perform and record. While his voice has lost some tonal quality over the years, he still sings very well indeed. His success did not herald a phalanx of African-American singers into county music. Perhaps, that was an unrealistic expectation, since voices as good as that of Charley Pride rarely come around.


Charley Pride on Vinyl

Charley’s peak period coincides with the period in which the biggest stars issued three or four albums per year. From 1966-1979 RCA released 31 albums – 28 regular albums plus 3 ‘Best of’ collections. Generally the albums from before 1972 are the best, although all of them are worthwhile. After Pride hit the big time the albums became more formulaic and contained more filler, but the hit singles remained top-notch.

From 1980 to 1986 RCA issued 11 albums including two Greatest Hitscollections. A switch to 16th Avenue saw three more albums released before the end of the vinyl era.

After leaving RCA at the end of 1986, Charley recorded for 16th Avenue Records where he charted eight singles through 1989 when the label folded. His albums on 16th Avenue were released on vinyl and audio cassette. His two biggest hits for 16th Avenue were “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” (1988 – #5) and “I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio” (1988 – #13) and he released three albums while on 16th Avenue in After All This Time, I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio and Moody Woman.


Charley Pride’s RCA recordings on CD

The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 1997 — an adequate overview with 20 songs, 19 hits plus a cover of “Please Help Me I’m Falling.”
The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 2006 – this two CD set replaced the prior entry and contains forty of Charley’s hits. An excellent set and an excellent value.
Charley Pride’s Country – Readers Digest 1996 — for years this was best available American collection. Containing 72 songs, 20 or so hits plus some good album cuts and cover versions.
The Legendary Charley Pride — BMG Australia 2003 — 50 songs, 40 hits plus a few other songs. Now out of print, this collection still is as good as any hits collection .
36 All Time Greatest Hits — RCA Special Products 193 — 36 songs — about 50-50 hits and other songs.

Several of Charley Pride’s other RCA albums have been available on CD over the years including Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits V2 (both truncated versions of the vinyl albums), There’s A Little Bit of Hank In Me (his Hank Williams tribute) and Charley Pride In Person at Panther Hall .


Other CDs and Recent Output

The 16th Avenue recording have been available on CD under a variety of names and for a variety of labels. The Curb CD The Best of Charley Pride is mostly 16th Avenue Recordings.

As noted above, so little of his music was available during the 1990s, that Charley re-recorded twenty-five of his biggest hits for Honest Entertainment. He also recorded some newer material, along with some other songs. These recordings have been licensed to a variety of labels including the Gusto, King, Tee Vee family of companies. These aren’t bad recordings but the originals are better.

Charley continues to record, although only occasionally. Three noteworthy albums from recent years include the following:

A Tribute To Jim Reeves (2001) – Charley recorded many Jim Reeves songs during his early peak years, so this album of all Jim Reeves songs was a natural for him to record. Charley does right by Jim’s memory.

The Comfort of Her Wings (2003) – new material – a pretty good album, although it produced no hits.

Choices (2011) – more new material, given a good run by one of the most distinctive voices in the business.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Roses In The Snow’

Releasing a bluegrass album is a near-certain way to ensure diminished album sales and radio airplay; just ask Dierks Bentley. It was considered even riskier move in 1980, when Nashville was still deeply entrenched in the Urban Cowboy sound. So Warner Bros. executives were understandably unenthusiastic when Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern submitted the bluegrass-oriented Roses In The Snow as Emmylou’s sixth album for the company. The label ultimately relented, primarily because of Emmylou’s stellar sales record: every album she’d released, with the exception of the Christmas album Light of the Stable, had been certified gold. The album was released in May 1980, and everyone braced themselves for a commercial disaster. But to everyone’s great surprise, Roses In The Snow was anything but a disaster. Although the two singles released to radio did not chart quite as high as some of her earlier records, the album peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top Country LPs chart, and like its five predecessors, was certified gold.

Emmylou’s previous album, 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl, had marked a change in direction, concentrating primarily on traditional country, as opposed to the more eclectic approach of her earlier releases. The success of Blue Kentucky Girl, as well as the influence of Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs, encouraged Harris to delve even deeper into traditional music. Skaggs’ fingerprints are all over Roses In The Snow; he played several instruments on the album as well as contributing duet and background vocals. But what really makes Roses In The Snow sound unique is autoharpist Bryan Bowers, who plays throughout the album. While perhaps not strictly bluegrass, the autoharp recreated the sound of the Carter Family, contributing to the old-timey sound that Harris and Ahern were aiming for.

Like Emmylou’s previous albums, Roses In The Snow was recorded in Los Angeles in the Enactron Truck and made use of both The Hot Band and an impressive guest line-up. The Whites, who had been featured prominently on Blue Kentucky Girl once again contributed harmony vocals, as did Harris’ good friends Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash provided backing vocals on one track (“Jordan”), Jerry Douglas played dobro and Wilie Nelson played gut-string guitar.

The traditional number “Wayfaring Stranger” was released as the album’s first single. Perhaps the closest in style to Harris’ earlier work — reminiscent of past hits such as “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and “One Of These Days” — “Wayfaring Stranger” climbed to #7, bucking the then-current trend towards slickly-produced, more pop sounding music. “The Boxer”, a remake of the 1968 Paul Simon hit, fared less well, stalling at #13. It is the most unusual song on the album, not something I — or probably most people — would have thought of while working on a bluegrass project, but it works surprisingly well. Sung from the male point of view, it benefits greatly from the acoustic arrangement, Bryan Bowers’ autoharp, and superb harmonies from The Whites.

The best music is often made when commercial considerations are cast aside, allowing the artist to engage in a labor of love. This is decidedly the case with Roses In The Snow. It’s hard to pinpoint the album’s highlights because it is excellent from beginning to end, but if pressed, I would have to go with “Green Pastures”, a Harris-Skaggs duet with harmonies provided by Dolly Parton, “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn”, another Harris-Skaggs collaboration written by Ralph Stanley, and “Gold Watch and Chain”, an A.P Carter-penned song which features Skaggs and Linda Ronstadt. Emmylou’s cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Learning” is also quite good, and is one of the few instances in which she breaks with tradition and uses some electric instruments, namely the electric guitar, courtesy of Hot Band member Albert Lee.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Roses Of The Snow in 2002, along with two bonus tracks: a cover of Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change” and the Celtic-flavored “Root Like A Rose”, written by Nancy Ahern (Bryan’s sister). Neither song is bluegrass, so they sound slightly out of place here, but both are excellent.

Roses In The Snow is available from Amazon and iTunes, and is highly recommended. Please note that the digital version of the album does not include the two bonus tracks.

Grade: A+