My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley – ‘I Feel Like Singing Today’

After success as a mainstream songwriter, Jim Lauderdale turned his sights on bluegrass with 2002’s I FEEL LIKE SINGING TODAY, the first of two collaborations with Dr. Ralph Stanley on the Dualtone label.

I noticed that Wikipedia has this album listed as being released on the Rebel label in 1999, so perhaps Dualtone bought the masters for this album for re-release in 2002. Whatever the case, I’m glad to own the album.

Since the 1979 album with Roland White would not be released for many years, this is Jim’s official first bluegrass album. Since Dr. Ralph is as venerated as any performer in the folk/acoustic/bluegrass field of music, I guess you’d have to say Jim started at the top with his collaborations. Jim and Ralph were familiar with each other prior to recording this project as the two had traded guest appearances on each other’s albums (Lauderdale’s WHISPER and Stanley’s CLINCH MOUNTAIN COUNTRY ).

Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 15 tunes on this album and the originals blend in nicely with the bluegrass canon.

“Who Thought That the Railroad Wouldn’t Last,” the title track and “Joy, Joy, Joy” (co-written with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead are up-tempo tunes that allow the Clinch Mountain Boys to show their wares. Two other Lauderdale originals “Another Sinner’s Prayer” and “Like Him,” feature Ralph Stanley , who excels in gospel performances, whether with accompaniment or a cappella.

Since bluegrass audiences always want some of the genre’s traditional fare, there are six classics covered, including “You’ll Find Her Name Written There (Harol Hensley), Maple On The Hill” (Gussie Davis) “What About You” (Jack Anglin, Jim Anglin, Johnnie Wright), “This Home Is Not My Home” (traditional), “Harbor of Love” (Carter Stanley), and ”Who Will Sing For Me” (Carter Stanley).

If you like bluegrass, you’ll love this album. If bluegrass isn’t your thing, you’ll likely still like it, because of the well-crafted songs and the fine vocal pairing. While Lauderdale takes most of the lead vocals, Jim knew even then that there are certain songs that just scream for Ralph Stanley to sing, particularly, and like any dutiful apprentice, Jim lets the master sing the leads on those songs

It is difficult for me to pick out a favorite song but I do have great fondness for the two Carter Stanley compositions. Here’s a sample of the lyrics of “Who Will Sing For Me”

If I sing for my friends
When death’s cold hand I see
When I reach my journey’s end
Who will sing one song for me?
I wonder (I wonder) who
Will sing (will sing) for me
When I’m called to cross that silent sea
Who will sing for me?

Jim is a competent musician, but on this album he and Ralph sing, leaving the instrument chores to Ralph’s Clinch Mountain Boys: James Cooke – acoustic bass & baritone vocals; James Alan Shelton – lead guitar; Ralph Stanley II – guitar & baritone vocals; Steve Sparkman – banjo & James Price – fiddle, mandolin & vocals

This is a solid A. Better yet, another such collaboration would follow.

Classic Album Review – Mac Wiseman – ‘Mac Wiseman’

Growing up as a military brat during in the 1950s and 1960s, we didn’t always live in an area where there were full time country music stations. Since Dad had a decent record collection, I was always able to listen to country music, but bluegrass wasn’t really Dad’s favorite subgenre of the music. As I recall, he had one Flatt & Scruggs album and a cheapie album by some non-descript group called Homer & The Barnstormers. Consequently, unless we lived in an area with a country radio station, I really didn’t often hear bluegrass music.

While in college I finally purchased a couple of bluegrass albums. One of the albums, Tennessee by Jimmy Martin, was on Decca. It is a great album that I highly commend to everyone.

The other album, Mac Wiseman, was on the Hilltop label. Hilltop was a reissue album that labels such as Dot, Capitol (and a few other labels that did not have their own cheap(er) reissue label) would reissue older material. Released in 1967, Hilltop JS 6047 consisted of Mac Wiseman tracks licensed from Capitol Records. While I only paid $1.29 for it brand-new, I regard it as one of the true treasures of my record collection.

With tracks recorded between 1960 and 1964, the album features a stellar collection of country and bluegrass musicians such as Ray Edenton (guitar), Benny Williams (mandolin), Joe Drumright and Buck Trent (banjo), Lew Childre (dobro) and Tommy Jackson, Buddy Spicher and Chubby Wise on fiddles.

Since it was on a budget label, the album contains only ten tracks, instead of the customary twelve tracks found on full price albums.

The album opens up with an up-tempo traditional tune “Footprints In The Snow” about a fellow who finds the love of his life by rescuing her from a blizzard. Buddy Spicher and Chubby Wise are featured on twin fiddles on this track and the next two tracks. Everyone from Bill Monroe onward recorded the song, but Mac’s version remains my favorite.

Now some folks like the summertime when they can walk about
Strolling through the meadow green it’s pleasant there no doubt
But give me the wintertime when the snow is on the ground
For I found her when the snow on the ground

I traced her little footprints in the snow
I found her little footprints in the snow
I bless that happy day when Nellie lost her way
For I found her when the snow was on the ground

Next up is “Pistol Packin’ Preacher”, written by Slim Gordon, another up-tempo romp, about a preacher who brought the gospel to the west, while being armed to defend himself and others when necessary.

“What’s Gonna Happen To Me?” is a slower song about a fellow lamenting the loss of love. This song was composed by the legendary Fred Rose with Gene Autry sometimes receiving co-writer credit. I’ve heard Autry’s version but I think Wiseman’s version is slightly better.

The flower of love came to wither and die
Our romance was never to be
No matter what happens I know you’ll get by
But what’s gonna happen to me

I’ll never be able to love someone new
Cause somehow I’ll never feel free
I’m sure you’ll find someone to care about you
But what’s gonna happen to me

“Tis Sweet To Be Remembered” is one of Mac’s signature songs. Originally recorded for Dot Records in 1957, this remake is in no way inferior to the original version. Mac is joined by Millie Kirkham and the legendary Jordanaires Quartet on this number and on the closing track of Side One, “I Love Good Bluegrass Music”.

‘Tis sweet to be remembered on a bright or gloomy day
‘Tis sweet to be remembered by a dear one far away
‘Tis sweet to be remembered remembered, remembered
‘Tis sweet to be remembered when you are far away

Side Two opens up with the lively “What A Waste of Good Corn Likker” about a fellows girl friend who falls into a vat of corn liquor and has to be ‘buried by the jug’. Unfortunately I have no session information at all about this track.

Cousin Cale upon the Jew’s harp
Played a mighty mournful tune
Kinfolks bowed their heads and gathered ’round
Then I heard the parson sing
Drink me only with thine eyes
As we watch them pour poor Lilly in the ground

Oh, what a waste of good corn liquor
From the still they pulled the plug
All the revenuers snickered ’cause she melted in the liquor
And they had to bury poor Lilly by the jug

Now I’m sitting in the twilight
‘Neath the weeping willow tree
The sun is slowly sinking in the west
And I’m clasping to my bosom
A little jug of Lilly Mae
With a broken heart I’m longing for the rest

Next up is the Marty Robbins-penned nostalgic ballad “Mother Knows Best”. Tommy Jackson and Shortly Lavender handle the twin fiddles on this track, and the next track, penned by Cindy Walker –
“Old Pair of Shoes”.

The album closes with a pair of country classics. “Dark Hollow” was penned by Bill Browning and has been recorded by dozens (maybe hundreds) of country and bluegrass artists and even such rock luminaries as the Grateful Dead. Jimmie Skinner, who straddled the fence between the two genres, had a top ten single with the song in 1959. Mac inflects the proper amount of bitterness into the vocal.

I’d rather be in some dark hollow where the sun don’t ever shine
Then to be at home alone and knowin’ that you’re gone
Would cause me to lose my mind

Well blow your whistle freight train carry me far on down the track
Well I’m going away, I’m leaving today
I’m goin’, but I ain’t comin’ back.

The album closes out with Kate Smith’s signature song “When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain”, a nostalgic ballad composed long ago by Harry Woods, Howard Johnson and Kate Smith. Kate took the song to #1 in 1931 and used it as her theme song for her various radio shows and personal appearances.

When the moon comes over the mountain
Every beam brings a dream, dear, of you
Once again we’ll stroll ‘neath the mountain
Through that rose-covered valley we knew
Each day is grey and dreary
But the night is bright and cheery
When the moon comes over the mountain
I’ll be alone with my memories of you

Many of these songs appear to be from previously uncollected singles but whatever the source, Mac Wiseman is in good voice throughout and the band completely meshes with what Mac is attempting to do. Bear Family eventually released these tracks in one of their expensive boxed sets, but for me, this album boils down the essence of Mac Wiseman in ten exquisite tracks. I still play this album often.

Grade: A+

Classic Review: Marty Robbins – ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’

71yKlXRWvsL._SL1072_Marty Robbins was that rare bird, a jack of all trades and the master of all of them. It didn’t matter whether the source of the music was rock and roll, rockabilly, R&B, cowboy, western swing, country, pop or Spanish-tinged, Marty could sing it and sing it well. Since Marty was born in Arizona, his first love was western songs and his western albums were indeed labors of love and represent the apogee of his career.

Released in 1959, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was a massive seller that has remained in print almost continuously since it was released 56 years ago. The album sold platinum, reached #6 on the pop album charts and #20 in the United Kingdom, and spawned two hugely successful singles in “El Paso” (#1 Country/#1 Pop/ #19 UK) and “Big Iron” (#5 Country / #26 Pop/ #48 UK).  Most critics regard the album as the most influential album of western and cowboy songs in American music history, and I couldn’t disagree with them since I wore out two vinyl copies and a cassette copy before the album was finally released on CD. Story songs sometimes get old from re-telling but every time I play this album, it seems new and fresh to me. The vocals are clear and melodious, the subdued and tasteful vocal harmonies (Jim, Tompall & Chuck Glaser) never intrude on the lead and the instrumental accompaniment, mostly the guitars of Grady Martin, and Jack Pruett, with Bob Moore on upright bass, are crisp and clear.

The album opens with “Big Iron”, the second single from the album, a Marty Robbins that is still often performed by western singing groups. The song concernes the fate of a bad outlaw who meets his fate

It was over in a moment and the crowd all gathered ’round
There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground
Oh, he might have went on livin’ but he made one fatal slip
When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip

Big iron, big iron,
Oh he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip

Next up is the Bob Nolan classic “Cool Water”, forever associated with Bob’s group the Sons of the Pioneers. I liked the Sons version but Marty and the Glaser Brothers own the song

“Billy The Kid” is a traditional western ballad abut a western villain who is often lionized in ballad.

Dave Kapp’s “A Hundred and Sixty Acres is next up.

“They’re Hanging Me Tonight” by Jimmy Lowe and Art Wolfe, is the tale of a man being hung for gunning down his woman and the man who stole her:

As I walked by a dim cafe
And I looked through the door
I saw my Flo with her new love
And I couldn’t stand no more
I couldn’t stand no more
I took my pistol from my hip
And with a tremblin’ hand
I took the life of pretty Flo
And that good for nothin’ man
That good for nothin’ man

I think about the thing I’ve done
I know it wasn’t right
They’ll bury Flo tomorrow
But they’re hangin’ me tonight
They’re hangin’ me tonight

The final track on Side One of the original vinyl album is “Strawberry Roan” a traditional western ballad that has been sung by hundreds of artists; however, rarely with the aplomb of Marty Robbins.

Side Two opens with “El Paso”. For many years polls taken of the top country songs of all time usually listed this song in the top three, mostly at the very top. In my humble opinion, it is still the greatest country record of all time (with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams at #2). Because of its length (4:23) Columbia hedged its bets by releasing a shorter version of the song on the flip side of the record so DJs could decide which version to play. In my area, the DJs ignored the short version of the song and played the full song. The song spent six weeks at #1 and has been performed by all manner of performers over the years, including The Grateful Dead who performed the song 389 times before disbanding. The song recounts the tale of a young cowboy who, in a jealous rage, kills another man who had eyes for his girl Felina, then flees Texas until he is driven by loneliness to return. Upon returning he is gunned down, probably for the act of stealing a horse when he escaped before.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican  girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina
Music would play and Felina would  whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was strong for this  Mexican maiden
I was in love, but in vain I could  tell.

Next up is another Marty Robbins original “In the Valley” about a guy pining for his gal’s return. The next song is “The Master’s Call”, another Marty Robbins original, this one about a young hellion caught up in  cattle stampede, saved for unknown reasons:

My wicked past unfolded, I thought of wasted years
When another bolt of lightning killed a hundred head of steers
And the others rushed on by me, and I was left to live
The Master had a reason, life is His to take and give.
A miracle performed that night, I wasn’t meant to die
The dead ones formed a barricade least 6 or 7 high
Right behind it, there was I, afraid but safe and sound
I cried and begged for mercy kneeling there upon the ground
A pardon I was granted, my sinful soul set free,
No more to fear the angry waves upon life’s stormy sea
Forgiven by the love of God, a love that will remain,
I gave my life and soul the night the Saviour called my name

One generally doesn’t associate Jim and Tompall Glaser with western gunfighter ballads but they produced an excellent one in “Running Gun”, a song which would have made an excellent single. In this song the protagonist meets his end at the hands of a bounty hunter


I knew someday I’d meet him for his hand like lightning flashed
My own gun stayed in leather as his bullet tore it’s path
As my strength was slowly fading, I could see him walk away
And I knew that where I lie today, he too must lie some day

Now the crowd is slowly gathering and my eyes are growing dim
And my thoughts return to Jeannie and the home that we had planned
Oh please tell her won’t you mister that she’s still the only one
But a woman’s love is wasted when she loves a running gun

The “Little Green Valley” comes from the pen of the legendary Carson Robison, a contemporary of Vernon Dalhart and a singing star in his own right. The song is a gentle ballad about the singer’s idyllic home

The original album closes out with “Utah Carol” a traditional song about a cowboy friend of the narrator who dies in a cattle stampede  saving the life of the boss’s daughter.

This album has been reissued numerous times, sometimes with the songs in a different sequence than on the original album. No  matter – the songs are all great and most listeners simply listen to the album, all the way through. In 1999 Sony issued an extended version of the album with the longest version of “El Paso” as a bonus cut, along with “The Hanging Tree” which was issued as a single the following year and “Saddle Tramp” which was the B-side of “Big Iron”.

Marty would revisit western themes on subsequent albums and release several sequels to “El Paso”.  Although all are very worthwhile, this is Marty’s masterpiece, an album any true country music fan will want in his collection.

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Dolly, Dolly, Dolly’

Derided by critics and Dolly Parton aficionados alike, the singer’s 22nd studio album would find her mining the catalogs of contemporary rock stars and their producers for material, with only a handful of these tracks coming from Music Row songwriters, and none from Dolly herself. Akin to Parton turning away from her own songwriting muse, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly was another attempt at marketing the Tennessee girl as a full-on pop star and was her least country-sounding album to date with the songs ranging from smooth acoustic pop ballads to outlandish string-laden affairs and even to (shudder) disco.   It didn’t match the sales threshold of her previous crossover albums as a gold or platinum-seller. Still, two single releases found their way to #1 and and the set found its way to the Country Albums chart top 10.

“Starting Over Again”, the lead single, was written by Donna Summer, one of the biggest star’s in music at the time of this album’s release, and her husband Bruce Sudano. It’s said to be based on the divorce of Sudano’s parents.  A tinkling piano frames Parton’s whispering vocal for the first half of the song.  Layers of percussion are added before a lush orchestra joins her and she turns up her soprano to keep up.  The story of two 50 year-olds “breaking up a happy home” was a #1 country hit and hit the U.S. top 40 for Dolly in early 1980 and Reba took a cover to #19 in 1996.  Summer never recorded the song, despite her personal connection to the song and being a co-writer, but did perform it several times over the years on television specials.

The sweetly demure “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle To You” followed at country radio, and was another chart-topper.  Here, a much more traditional country arrangement with traces of pedal steel and a much less jazzy piano follows Parton as she sings of telling her man the love she has for him is greater than any before it.  But this is the only indication of the early Dolly records, as the rest of the songs fall into a variety of styles, none of them country.  Even Parton’s trademark Appalachian twang has been smoothed out to suit the slicker arrangements.

She kicks up her heels in the synth-pop infused “Same Old Fool”, which is clever enough and Dolly sells it convincingly with her charming vocal.  It’s still terribly dated and a bit jarring to modern-trained ears.  Worse is the disco-parody sound of “Sweet Agony”, which begins with a Grateful Dead-inspired guitar intro, but is propelled by a foreign-to-me rhythm section.  Even Dolly’s crystal clear soprano is no match for these contrived dance-club lyrics though.  My least favorite track is the hard-rocking “Packin’ It Up”. With a shredding electric guitar leading the way and country-girl-comes-to-town storyline, it does sound about 25 years ahead of its time.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear The Jane Dear Girls singing it. “You’re The Only One I’ll Ever Need” is likewise executed in the dance-pop fashion, but is a much better song and a much more flattering horn section framing the singer’s rocking soprano vocal performance.

Still trying on different vocal styles, Parton’s much more convincing as a torch-song singer than dance-floor queen with “Even a Fool Would Let Go”, a lush, swaying heartbreak number.  Its romantic mood and the singer’s buttery vocal belies its melancholy story, but is a highlight of the album for me.  Selling romantic lyrics is certainly Dolly’s strong point in this west coast pop environment. With “Say Goodnight”, which flirts with doo-wop towards the climax of the song, she plays the lovelorn heroine so convincingly I couldn’t leave her alone, not that night.

Parton is to be lauded for taking musical risks, and her gutsy performances of each track here. The songs themselves serve to showcase Parton’s knack for selecting, and not just writing, great songs. Cheesy early ’80s production aside – again supplied by Gary Klein – most of the tracks are good songs and Dolly’s unparalleled effervescence shines through the best of them.

Grade: B-

Dolly, Dolly, Dolly is available digitally at amazon. Used CD copies are very inexpensive.

Album Review: ‘She Thinks I Still Care: The George Jones Collection’

George Jones’ landmark 1960 recording “The Window Up Above” was the apex of his years with Mercury Records. It marked his transition from a singer of honky tonk barn burners to a Nashville Sound ballad crooner. By 1962, he made the switch to United Artists Records and continued to perfect his craft. This collection, released in 1997 by Razor & Tie, focuses on his tenure with United Artists, which lasted from 1962 until 1964. Though his stint with the label was a short one, it yielded 151 recordings, including a handful of true classics that are the best of his career prior to his period with Epic Records (1971 to 1991). Twenty-two of those 151 recordings were released as singles, and twenty-one of them are represented here; the sole omission is 1963’s non-charting “Ain’t It Funny What A Fool Will Do.”

United Artists at the time was a fledgling label that had been started primarily to release soundtrack albums of UA films. It later branched out into jazz, and when Mercury executive Art Talmadge was recruited to start a country division, Pappy Dailey and George Jones joined him. They hit paydirt straight out of the box with “She Thinks I Still Care”, his first release for the label. It was his third #1 hit and the biggest record of his career to date. Originally intended as a pop ballad, it was pitched to Jones by former Sun Records producer Jack Clement, who altered the melody to make it sound more country. It has been covered many times by artists such as Elvis Presley, Anne Murray, and Patty Loveless.

George’s next few releases — all released in 1962– didn’t fare quite as well. “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” reached #17, “Open Pit Mine” peaked at #13, and “You’re Still On My Mind” petered out at #28. His fortunes turned around by year-end, with “A Girl I Used To Know”, a #3 hit written by Jack Clement that is better known in its slightly re-tooled duet version. As “Just Someone I Used To Know”, it has been recorded many, many times, most notably by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1969. Jones closed out 1962 with “The Big Fool Of The Year”, which peaked at #13. He greeted 1963 with the somewhat similar sounding “Not What I Had In Mind”, a somewhat forgotten and definitely underrated number that reached #7 on the charts.

In 1963, Jones was paired with another Pappy Dailey client, Melba Montgomery, for a series of successful duets, seven of which are represented here. The best known is “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds”, which Melba wrote, but all of the Montgomery duets included in this collection are worthwhile. Melba’s raw bluegrass harmonies matched Jones more polished vocal style quite nicely on tunes such as “She’s My Mother”, “Let’s Invite Them Over”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “What’s In Our Hearts.” All of the Jones-Montgomery duets were recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, and George reportedly considers them to be the best duets of his career, trumping even his better-known later work with Tammy Wynette.

After “She Thinks I Still Care”, the best known record from Jones’ UA period is “The Race Is On”, an upbeat number that reached #3 and has also been covered many times by artists such as The Grateful Dead and pop singer Jack Jones (no relation). In 1989 the song revived the flagging career of Sawyer Brown.

In addition to the aforementioned big hits, this two-disc collection is rounded out by some religious songs and a few covers of other artists’ songs, most notably “Faded Love”, which was included on Jones’ 1962 Bob Wills tribute album.

Only a small handful of Jones’ recordings from the United Artists era are considered essential, but it’s my favorite phase of his career from the pre-Epic years. This particular collection is currently out of print. Used copies are available from third-party sellers on Amazon, but they are quite expensive. Bear Family Records released the entire UA catalog in a five-disc box set called She Thinks I Still Care: The Complete United Artists Recordings: 1962-1964, but it too is quite expensive and only of interest to diehard fans. More economical is a single-disc, ten track 2003 collection released by Capitol, also called She Thinks I Still Care. Like the Razor & Tie collection, this one is also out of print, but cheap used copies are available. The song selection on the Capitol disc is meager and there some glaring omissions such as “The Race Is On” and “A Girl I Used To Know.” It’s difficult to find a decent compilation of the United Artists years without breaking the budget, but any money used to purchase any of these recordings is money well spent.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘I Am What I Am’

Too often in recent years, in both song and in interviews, Merle Haggard has come across as a grumpy old man who is often (and sometimes justifiably) frustrated with both the state of the nation and the music industry. His first album of all-new material in nearly five years finds him sounding less cynical and angry, less overtly political, more optimistic — and surprisingly refreshed. Incorporating a variety of sounds — from traditional country and Western swing to folk and Dixeland jazz — he doesn’t break any new ground or cover any territory that he hasn’t visited many times in the past, yet he sounds more connected to the music than he has on his past few releases. He wrote and produced all of the album’s songs, with Lou Bradley assisting as co-producer.

The Hag is joined once again by his always-stellar band The Strangers, sans Bonnie Owens who passed away in 2006 and whose presence is missed. Cast aside long ago by country radio, Merle makes no concessions to contemporary mainstream tastes. All of the tracks on I Am What I Am, Haggard’s first release for Vanguard Records, sound as though they could have been culled from his best albums of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His voice is showing some inevitable signs of wear and tear, but for the most part he is in good vocal form throughout the album, especially in light of the fact that he underwent surgery for lung cancer in late 2008.

The album opens with “I’ve Seen It Go Away”, a Woody Guthrie-style number with a “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” theme. He makes some social commentary, as he is often wont to do, though he makes his points more subtly here than he has in the past, taking gentle swipes at the country music establishment:

I’ve seen my share of good times come and go,
I’ve seen Bob Wills and Elvis, when they did a show.
When you’ve seen the very best, the rest can’t hardly play,
I’ve seen it, girls, and I’ve seen it go away

and America’s political leaders:

I’ve watched it all completely fall apart,
And I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s heart.
I’ve seen most of what we’ve got have a whole lot better day,
I’ve seen it, kids, and I’ve seen it go away.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of 1981’s “Rainbow Stew”, which is largely forgotten today, but it is an important song to me personally, since this is the song he had on the charts around the time that I became interested in country music.

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