My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Delmore Brothers

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today’

It is not unusual for a record label to release material it has “in the can” after an artist has left for another label. What is unusual is for that material to be top-flight and perhaps even better than the artist’s current musical releases. A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today is the first of two albums in which Haggard and Capitol wave goodbye to each other. The album made its chart debut on October 15, 1977, approximately five months after the release of his first album for MCA, Ramblin’ Fever.

Since the album didn’t have the promotional push of Capitol Records behind it, #28 was as high on the album charts as it would get and the singles released (“A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”, “Making Believe” , and ”Running Kind”) all languished between #12 and #16 on the Billboard Country charts. Despite that the album remains one of my favorites.

More so than on his most recent Capitol releases, this album was founded on the blues. Since Haggard was already gone from Capitol, I assume that Ken Nelson was the guiding force behind the songs chosen for this album. If so, he did a magnificent job of protecting Hag’s legacy.

The album opens up with the title song, a song which echoes the sentiments of working people everywhere:

“A working man can’t get nowhere today
A working man ain’t got no time to play
Today I work my fanny off and leave it lay
A working man can’t get nowhere today”

The next track is one familiar to country fans of my generation and older, a song which was a major hit for Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris, the Jimmy Work-penned “Making Believe”. An older generation would remember “Blues Stay Away From Me” as a major hit for Alton & Rabon Delmore.

Life is full of misery
Dreams are like a memory
Bringing back your love that used to be

Some have referred to the Delmore Brothers recording of this song as the first real rock and roll song; I think that is pushing it a bit, but it certainly is an excellent (and depressing song).

“Got A Letter From My Kid Today” was an old Tin Pan Alley song, with lyrics by Hy Zaret, who also wrote the Al Hibbler hit “Unchained Melody”. Bob Wills recorded and released it during the early years of WW2 but shellac shortages limited its distribution:

“Got a letter from my kid today
They let me read a line or two
I lost my teddy bear, I can’t remember where
Daddy is he there with you?”

“When My Last Song Is Sung” is a Haggard original, a highly introspective song about a singer looking back at his career and giving thanks to his maker. “Moanin’ The Blues” is the Hank Williams classic – not one of Hag’s stronger efforts but a nice recording anyway.

Merle Haggard’s boyhood idol was Lefty Frizzell. “Goodbye Lefty” is Merle’s goodbye to his recently departed idol and mentor. The song is a little gimmicky, working in various Lefty Frizzell song titles into the lyrics, but it works and is a thoughtful tribute to one of the greatest country singers of all time:

“I’d love to hear a jukebox play ‘I love you a thousand ways’
Or ‘If you’ve got the money I’ve got the time’
I’d walk a mile for mom and dad and the good times that we had
‘Look what thoughts will do’ when you sing ‘old pal of mine’.”

“Blues For Dixie” is a song recorded by Bob Wills in 1947 that has a Dixieland Jazz feel but a lyric consistent with the blues. “Running Kind” was a single that probably could have been a big hit with the proper promotional push behind it. Like many of Haggard’s best songs, it reflects the angst in his soul:

“I was born the running kind, leaving always on my mind
Home was never home to me at anytime
Every front door found me open I would find the back door open
There just had to be a lesson for the running kind

Within me there’s a prison, surrounding me alone
As real as any dungeon with a wall of stone
I know running’s not the answer, but running’s been my nature
And a part of me that keeps me moving on”

The best songs spring from unhappiness, despair and uneasiness. While this fact has made for some great songs, it also explains why it took Haggard so long to ever really settle down.

The title of “I’m A White Boy” is much less controversial than the title might suggest. Merle could easily have titled it ‘I’m A Poor Boy’ although the lyrical value would have been affected.

Haggard was always at his best when singing blues-based lyrics and this album gives him some outstanding songs to sink his teeth into. Haggard had gotten into a rut with his previous three or four Capitol albums, and the first two MCA albums Rambling Fever and My Farewell To Elvis really didn’t pull him out of it, although an artist rebirth was just around the corner.

Capitol would dredge up one more Haggard album before giving up, a tribute to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell titled The Way It Was in ‘51.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore – ‘Heirloom Music’

Veteran Texan singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore has teamed up with the fabulously named Wronglers for a look back into the roots of country music. This is a convincing reconstruction of the acoustic string band music which was to grow into country music. The Wronglers’ Heidi Clare and Colleen Browne (who play fiddle and bass respectively) add harmony vocals throughout; the talented Heidi was also responsible for all the arrangements.

Jimmie Dale’s distinctive voice, with its echoes of Willie Nelson, works well on songs like the plaintive Johnny Bond classic ‘I Wonder Where You Are Tonight’. A pained version of the Bob Wills classic ‘Time Changes Everything’ is a real highlight, and my favorite track is a lovely, tender take on the Carter Family’s ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’. Country music pioneer Charlie Poole originally recorded ‘Leavin’ Home’, the story of Frankie and Johnny, back in 1926. It has a sprightly feel belying the dark lyrics of this murder ballad. Jimmie Davis’s ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’ is another authentic-sounding song from the roaring ’20s. The fanciful Depression-era ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is rather charming; it is performed as a duet with the Wronglers’ frontman and banjo player, Warren Hellman, a retired financier who is the promoter of California’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. I also enjoyed ‘Foggy Mountain Top’, a folk song which A.P. Carter found and copyrighted.

Bluegrass gets a nod with Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘If I Should Wander Back’, which is a bit dull, the oddly jubilant ‘Footprints In The Snow’, and an enjoyably sedate version of Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’. The latter’s namechecking of older songs seems perfectly appropriate on this heritage-infused album. The traditional blues number ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ harks back to yet another source of American roots music. Less effective for me are the groups’ versions of Doc Watson’s ‘Way Downtown’ and the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’, while the traditional ‘In The Pines’ drags a bit.

The very elaborate packaging and artwork with the band dressed up in 19th century outfits adds to the mood of historical recreation. Perhaps this dressing up rather than letting the music speak for itself makes it more redolent of modern reenactors of historic battles than the real thing, but on the whole I am enjoying listening to this and having a bygone era evoked.

Grade: B

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