My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: The Louvin Brothers

Classic Album Review: Hank Locklin – ‘The Country Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by RCA Records (my copy is a German pressing on RCA/Telefunken), Hank’s tribute takes a different approach from Wanda Jackson’s album from two years earlier, being centered around the 1967 hit single “The Country Hall of Fame”.

Largely forgotten today, Hank had a substantial career as a songwriter, performer, and occasional hitmaker, although he never was headquartered in Nashville, so he didn’t get as much promotional push from his label, and he never really maintained his own band. He was a huge favorite in England and Ireland making many trips there.

His biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On”, was a top five county hit for Hank in 1957 (it had been a regional hit for him in the late 1940s on another label ) and earned him a boatload of money by being frequently covered by other artists such as Dean Martin and Johnny Tillotson both had top five easy listening/top twenty pop hits with the song. Tillotson’s recording also became a top ten or top twenty pop hit in a number of European countries.

As a singer, Locklin was a wobbly Irish tenor whose voice wasn’t a perfect match for every song, but when the right song reached him, he could deliver some really big hits. “Let Me Be The One” spent three weeks at #1 in 1953, and “Please Help Me I’m Falling” spent fourteen weeks at #1 in 1960. Hank had ten top ten hits through spring 1962, but after that Arnold, even the top twenty became nearly impossible for him, until the title song to this album.

When the earlier Wanda Jackson album was released the Country Music Hall of Fame was comprised of the following performers: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and Ernest Tubb. By the time Hank’s album arrived there had been multiple inductions (in 1966 and 1967), but of the eight new inductees, four were non-performers. The newly inducted performers were “Uncle” Dave Macon, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold and Red Foley.

In selecting songs for this album, Hank and his producers Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis selected songs by persons either in the Country Hall of Fame or assumed to be inducted in the upcoming years.

The album opens up with “High Noon”, a hit for Frankie Laine, but forever associated with Tex Ritter, who sang the song in the famous movie starring Gary Cooper. Hank’s voice is pitched much higher than that of Ritter, but the song, taken at a slightly faster tempo than Ritter’s version, works. The song has a straightforward country backing with a vocal chorus.

Do not forsake me oh my darling on this our wedding day
Do not forsake me oh my darling, wait wait along
I do not know what fate awaits me, I only know I must be brave
And I must face the man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave

Next up is “Four Walls”, a million seller for the then-recently departed Jim Reeves in 1957.

Track three is the title song, Hank’s last Billboard top thirty country hit, reaching #8. In concept, the song, written by Karl Davis is somewhat similar to an Eddie Dean composition, “I Dreamed of Hillbilly Heaven”, which Tex Ritter took to #5 in 1961, although “Hillbilly Heaven” is a dream sequence song about a mythical place, whereas Karl Davis was inspired by his visit to the actual Country Hall of Fame museum. This song features a full string arrangement by Bill Walker. Although the only song on this album to feature the full string arrangement, such arrangements would become increasingly common in the next few years:

I was roaming round in Nashville in the state of Tennessee
For I love that country music, it’s as soulful as can be
I have gathered there the records for I cherished every name
So I found myself a standing in the Country Hall of Fame

My heart beat somewhat faster as I walked in through the door
For I heard the sound of voices I had often heard before
A happy kind of sadness brought a teardrop to my eye
Now I’ll tell you what I saw there and I’m sure that you’ll see why

Jimmie Rodgers’ railroad lantern and his faithful old guitar
I could hear that old blue yodel coming from somewhere afar
Roy Acuff in bronze likeness with the great Fred Rose his friend
And I heard that Wabash Cannonball somewhere around the bend

The guitar of Eddy Arnold memories of Cattle Call
Chet Atkins will be with him when the work’s all done this fall
From the autoharp of Maybelle, Wildwood Flower seems to ring
Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner how they all could pick and sing

I could hear George Hay announcin’ as I stood there in the room
I could hear Tex Ritter singing his classic song High Noon
Minnie Pearl so glad to be there and Hank Snow keeps Movin’ On
May the Lord bless those still living and the ones who’s joined his throne

Cowboy Copas, Hankshaw Hawkins, Gentleman Jim and Patsy Cline
Rod Bradsfield, Ira Louvin, these stars will always shine
Ernest Tubb, the great Red Foley and Hank Williams bless his name
Though some are gone they’ll live forever in the Country Hall of Fame

“I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Until I Can Hold You In My Arms)” was a massive hit for Arnold, spending 21 weeks at #1 in 1947/1948. Hank acquits himself well on this song as he does on the next track, Ernest Tubb’s 1941 hit “Walking The Floor Over You”.

Side One closes out with Hank’s cover of the “Lovesick Blues”, written by Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Cliff Friend and Irving Mills back in 1922. Emmet Miller (1928) and Rex Griffin (1939) recorded the song, but Hank Williams had the biggest hit with the song in 1949. Countless others, including Patsy Cline, have recorded the song. To really do the song justice, a singer needs to be a good yodeler, and here Locklin yodels the chorus with ease.

Side Two opens up with a mid-tempo take on Roy Acuff’s “Night Train To Memphis” with a modern arrangement (no dobro, banjo or fiddles), but with a bit of the old tent revival show feeling to it.

This is followed by “Sign Sealed and Delivered”, a hit for Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas in 1948). I think the assumption was that Copas would be elected to the Country Hall of Fame eventually, although that has yet to happen. Of the three stars who died in the 1963 plane crash (Copas, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins) Copas was the most famous at the time of his death.

“No One Will Ever Know” was written by Fred Rose, inducted as an executive and songwriter. The biggest hit on the song was by Gene Watson, #11 RW in 1980, although many others have recorded the song, including Hank Williams and Jimmie Dickens. Hank Locklin takes the song at a slow tempo with guitar and piano dominating the arrangement. The vocal choruses are present but not misused. It is a great song and I don’t know why no one has ever had a monster hit with the song

No one will ever know my heart is breaking
Although a million teardrops start to flow
I’ll cry myself to sleep and wake up smiling
I’ll miss you but no one will ever know

I’ll tell them we grew tired of each other
And realized our dreams could never be
I’ll even make believe I never loved you
Then no one will ever know the truth but me

The Jimmie Rodgers classic brag “Blue Yodel #1 a/k/a ‘T’ for Texas” gives Hank a chance to again show off his skill as a yodeler. On this album, Hank one uses the “blue yodel” technique but he was quite capable of doing the “rolling” (or Swiss) technique such as used by Elton Britt, Kenny Roberts and Margo Smith

The album closes with the classic Louvin Brothers hit “When I Stop Dreaming” which finds Locklin at the top of his vocal range, and a nice cover of the Red Foley gospel favorite “Peace In The Valley”.

As was customary for albums of this vintage no musician credits are given, although PragueFrank’s website suggests that the following were present :

Pete Wade, Wayne Moss, Jerry Reed Hubbard and Ray Edenton – guitars
Roy M. “Junior” Huskey, Jr. – bass / Jerry Kerrigan – drums
Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Floyd Cramer – piano / The Jordanaires – background vocals

I know that Hank Locklin’s voice is not to everyone’s taste but I think most listeners would enjoy this album because of the variety and quality of the songs. Interestingly enough, there is no overlap in songs between this album and Wanda Jackson’s earlier tribute album. I would give this album a B+

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Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Gospel Roots’

Gene Watson has released a gospel album previously (Jesus Is All I Need, in 1997, repackaged under various titles since), but his new release in that vein is his best in a religious vein. Still a stunningly good singer belying his seven decades, he has selected some excellent songs, and avoided too much well worn material. The arrangements are as traditional country as one would expect from one of Gene’s secular records, and Dirk Johnson, who has been producing his music for some years, is in charge again this time.

The best song is the high lonesome ‘Fit For A King’, a story song about a homeless preacher, which was written by Jim Rushing and Carl Jackson, and previously recorded by a number of artists, most famously Garth Brooks. Gene’s version of this modern classic is tenderly observed and ornamented by beautiful harmonies from co-writer Jackson and the bluegrass singer Val Storey. Wonderful.

The promotional single, ‘Old Roman Soldier’ gives a voice to one of the soldiers present at the Crucifixion. A somber story with an inspirational twist, it is beautifully delivered by Gene, assisted again by Jackson and Storey. Another highlight is an exquisite reading of the emotional plea ‘Help Me’, which is repeated from Gene’s last album.

Some of the songs are old favorites which Gene remembers singing at church as a boy. The Southern Gospel hymn ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ is sung with careful sincerity. The beautiful ‘In The Garden’, another hymn from early 20th century America, gets a fuller more orchestrated arrangement.

The traditional ‘Swing Wide Them Golden Gates’ picks up the pace and is very catchy with some lively piano backing. Gospel standard ‘Satisfied’ is taken at a brisk pace. ‘Clinging To A Saving Hand’, another classic country gospel tune, is very nicely done.

‘Praying’ was originally written by Hazel Houser for the Louvin Brothers, and also recorded by Gene’s peer Vern Gosdin in the 80s. It is a sweet song about a sinner who is the subject of his poor mother’s prayers. ‘Til The Last leaf Shall Fall’ is an obscure Sonny James song which is pretty good.

‘Call Me Gone’ is a passionate ballad about longing for Heaven, which is a cover of a song by the Southern Gospel group The Hinsons. It features another outstanding vocal from Gene. The Isaacs provide harmonies on the Dottie Rambo-penned ballad ‘Build My Mansion (Next Door To Jesus)’, which is very pretty. ‘He Ain’t Gone For Good’, a new song co-written by producer Johnson, is a solid song about the Resurrection.

This album is thoroughly recommended to anyone who likes religious music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Dale Watson & Ray Benson – ‘Dale & Ray’

61mjexmhfpl-_ac_us400_ql65_Duos have been a staple of country music almost from the very beginning. At one time it was fairly common for successful solo artists (usually one male and one female signed to the same label) to regularly collaborate for duet albums in addition to their solo projects. In more recent years it’s been more common for artists to collaborate on one-off or occasional projects rather than working together on a regular basis. Thus, such collaborations became regarded to be “events”.

The coming together of Dale Watson and Ray Benson – like-minded individuals who have fought hard to preserve the genre’s integrity, against the prevailing commercial trends of the day – seems on the surface as though it would be just such an event, but unfortunately it’s a project that never quite comes together. It’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly; it’s just that Watson and Benson don’t complement each other very well vocally, with Benson being the stronger vocalist of the two. The songs themselves are strong, and the backing musicians are superb but Dale & Ray never quite exceeds the sum of its parts.

The album gets off on the wrong foot with the opening track “The Ballad of Dale & Ray”, a tongue-in-cheek number that they first performed at the Ameripolitan Awards. The humor falls a bit flat; however. It may have worked onstage but it probably wasn’t worthy of being memorialized on record. Things improve considerably with the second track, “Feelin’ Haggard”, a tribute to Merle, who of course, passed away last year. They also play homage to Merle’s Bakersfield mentor Buck Owens on “Cryin’ For Cryin’ Time Again”. They also cover “Write Your Own Songs” which lacks the punch of Willie’s original. Their version of “I Wish You Knew” isn’t bad but a Louvin Brothers cover really needs vocalists who can harmonize better together to truly do it justice.

This is an album that I really wanted to like — and I do like it. I just don’t love it the way I thought I would. It’s the kind of music I love but given a choice I’d rather listen to Asleep at the Wheel or Watson’s solo albums. Together Watson and Benson lack chemistry and the album definitely suffers from a lack of synergy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Always, Always’

51OLaYLMOxL._SS500_SS280Released in the summer of 1969, Always, Always was the third duet album from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Today it is one of only two of their original albums that is available for digital download. Why this one was chosen to be made available over some of the others is a mystery, as it does not contain any of the duo’s best remembered hits. It is, however, a very solid collection and well worth listening to.

Two singles were released from the album, both of them ballads. The first was Harlan Howard’s “Yours Love” in which the pair profess their undying love for each other. It reached #9. The second single, the slightly bland title track written by Joyce McCord reached #16. The album’s best cut is the opening number, “Milwaukee, Here I Come”, a remake of a song that had reached #13 the prior year for George Jones and Brenda Carter. The tongue-in-cheek uptempo number is about a starstruck Wisconsin couple who are about to return home after an extended stay in Nashville:

I’m gonna get on that old turnpike and I’m gonna ride
I’m gonna leave this town ’til you decide
Which one you want the most them Opry stars or me
Milwaukee here I come from Nashville, Tennessee

Another winner is a very nice cover of “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”, which had been a #1 hit for The Louvin Brothers in 1956. Younger listeners may be familiar with the Alison Krauss version released in 1995. “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” is very nice mid tempo toe tapper that features an excellent steel guitar solo, as do many of the other songs on the album.

The album also contains three of Dolly’s original compositions. “My Hands are Tied” and “No Reason To Hurry Home” are both solid efforts, while “Malena” finds Dolly once again revisiting the dying child theme. It’s a pretty song with a nice vocal performance from Dolly, followed by a recitation by Porter which reveals the child’s fate, but it’s a little too maudlin and morbid for my liking. I could have done without this one but the rest of the album is first-rate.

Grade: A-

Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

Back in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

Week ending 3/26/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

0a5c3cc5dde8f7cb6fc488259d1a9a9d1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train — Elvis Presley (Sun)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby — The Louvin Brothers (Capitol)

1966: Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet) — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1986: What’s a Memory Like You (Doing in a Love Like This) — John Schneider (MCA)

1996: You Can Feel Bad — Patty Loveless (Epic)

2006: Living In Fast Forward — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: You Should Be Here — Cole Swindell (Warner Bros.)

2016 (Airplay): Heartbeat — Carrie Underwood (19/Arista)

Week ending 3/19/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-Louvin_Brothers1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train — Elvis Presley (Sun)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby — The Louvin Brothers (Capitol)

1966: Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: The Roots of My Raising — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1986: I Could Get Used To You — Exile (Epic)

1996: The Beaches of Cheyenne — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2006: Living In Fast Forward — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): We Went — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Universal United House of Prayer’

410LpFPxXNLI’ve listened to this albums several times through, and in some respects I am still not quite sure what to make of it. It isn’t really a country album, although there are tracks that sound decidedly country, and it isn’t R&B, although some songs have an R&B feel.

Universal United House of Prayer is an album of religiously themed music, although certainly not in the same sense as the music of the Blackwood Brothers, Chuck Wagon Gang or the Swan Silvertones. It seems an odd choice for Buddy’s first release on the New West label yet it is completely appropriate in that it has always been difficult pigeonhole Buddy’s secular music, so why should his religious music be any different?

Most of the songs are good and most of the performances are solid, yet this album really didn’t square with my idea of religious music. I regard the whole as being less than the sum of the parts.

Buddy had a hand in writing seven of the eleven songs on the album, four of them co-writes with wife Julie, plus co-writes with Victoria Williams and Jim Lauderdale. Julie Miller wrote one song by herself.

The album opens with “Worry Too Much” was penned by the late Mark Heard. Heard was essentially a rock songwriter and Buddy sings this as a rock song. I would like this song better in different surroundings

It’s the demolition derby
It’s the sport of the hunt
Proud tribe in full war-dance
It’s the slow smile that the bully gives the runt

It’s the force of inertia
It’s the lack of constraint
It’s the children out playing in the rock garden
All dolled up in black hats and war paint

Fiddle and drum dominate the sound of the Louvin Brothers’ country gospel classic “There’s A Higher Power”. It’s not bad but it is not the Louvins; however, the Louvin Brothers lyrics are always worthwhile:

When burdens seem to overcome
(There’s a higher power)
Who’s faithful and refuses none
(There’s a higher power)

Then why ask men to help you through?
(There’s a higher power)
They’re helpless pilgrims just like you
(There’s a higher power)

Let’s sing it, shout it, walk it, talk it
(There’s a higher power)
Lay down your soul ’cause Jesus bought it
(There’s a higher power)

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
(There’s a higher power)
Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
(There’s a higher power)

Buddy and Julie collaborated on “Shelter Me” with uplifting strong backing vocals by Regina and Ann McCrary. I regard this as the best of Buddy Miller’s songwriting contributions to this album

The earth can shake, the sky come down
The mountains all fall to the ground
But I will fear none of these things
Shelter me Lord, underneath your wings

Dark waters rise and thunders pound
The wheels of war are going round
And all the walls are crumbling
Shelter me Lord, underneath Your wings

Shelter me Lord)
(Shelter me Lord)
Hide me underneath Your wings
(Shelter me Lord)
Hide me deep inside Your heart

(Shelter me Lord)
In your refuge, cover me
The world can shake
But Lord, I’m making You my hiding place

Miller’s take on Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” runs nine minutes. Buddy’s vocals are strong and believable but a nine minute song is simply too long

The rest of the album plods along. All of the songs are good but nothing especially stands out for me. I am probably being unfair but the album wasn’t country enough for my tastes, Buddy’s guitar work was excellent throughout and the aforementioned McCrary Sisters (featured on nine of the tracks) are a real highlight with their almost ephemeral harmonies.

I would give this album a “B”. Folks more inclined to like rock or alt-country will probably rate it higher.

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Your Love and Other Lies’

71+O5-9t0GL._SX522_Released in 1995, Your Love and Other Lies was Buddy Miller’s first solo album, and the first of six to be released over the next decade on the HighTone label. A prior recording – Man on the Moon, also released in 1995 – was credited to Buddy Miller and the Sacred Cows on the obscure Coyote label, and is difficult to find today.

Miller has enjoyed great success in the Americana realm but is largely unknown to mainstream audiences, despite being highly regarded by some of the most prominent names in Nashville. I always find it interesting to speculate why artists like this didn’t enjoy mainstream success. He is a decent, though somewhat limited vocalist, and although the rootsy Your Love and Other Lies was less polished than what country radio wanted, even twenty years ago, it was not as far outside the mainstream at that time as it is today. His age – 43 at the time of this album’s release –may have been an obstacle, but the main reason Buddy Miller never made it as a mainstream major label act is that he doesn’t seem to have ever made any attempt to do so. For those of us who enjoy roots music made with little or no concessions to commercial tastes, this is a very good thing.

Miller had a hand in writing about half of the album’s 13 songs, some of them with his wife Julie, who also contributed two solo compositions and provided harmony vocals on some of the tracks. His good friend Jim Lauderdale also made two contributions (one co-write and one solo composition).

The two songs most likely to be familiar to mainstream country fans – or at least those of a certain age – are very nice covers of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis”. Julie’s harmony vocals on the former are spectacular. The latter was recorded by the songwriter himself in 1969, and was a #3 hit for Bobby Bare the following year. It has been covered numerous times since then. I’m tempted to say that it’s my favorite cut on the album, but it’s a tough call. I’m likely partial to it because it’s more familiar to me. Additionally, there are quite a few other contenders , beginning with the opening track “You Wrecked Up My Heart”, a Buddy/Julie co-write that sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have included on one of her 90s albums. To my knowledge, none of these songs were covered by the mainstream artists of the day, which is somewhat surprising.

Julie’s solo composition “Don’t Listen to the Wind” with its fiddle-intro has a Celtic feel to it. Jim Lauderdale’s “Hold On My Love” , featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, is reminiscent of The Everly Brothers, and Buddy’s solo effort “Watching Amy Dance” is a tear-jerker about an abandoned husband who doesn’t miss his ex but is pining away for the daughter with whom he has lost contact.

I’m less impressed with the album’s two most contemporary numbers: the rock-tinged “I Can’t Slow Down” and “Hole In My Head”. The latter is catchy and sounds like a summertime single for a mainstream artist but the lyrics are on the shallow side.

Although considered by many to be an Americana album, Your Love and Other Lies has plenty of fiddle and pedal steel and is exactly what many of us wish we could hear on country radio. I highly recommend it.
Grade: A

Song Review: Don Henley featuring Dolly Parton – ‘When I Stop Dreaming’

Don-Henley-Dolly-Parton-Kevork-Djansezian-Rick-DiamondFew people expressed surprise when Don Henley announced plans to release a country album; he has dabbled in the genre before, collaborating on projects with Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire. And though The Eagles were not country band, there is no denying that they greatly influenced the genre. Add to that the fact that country music has long been a dumping ground for pop and rock acts past their commercial primes, and the decision to record an album in Nashville seemed to be a logical one.

Cass County is slated to be released next month. A few tracks have been made available for download via iTunes: the non-(country) charting “Take a Picture of This” and a duet with Martina McBride called “That Old Flame”. Neither can be described as hardcore country; they are middle-of-the-road AC-type songs with just enough country elements to keep the natives happy — about what one would expect from a side-project by a rock artist.

What is a surprise, however,is the third track to be pre-released from the album: a remake of the 1955 classic “When I Stop Dreaming”. That a rock act would cover The Louvin Brothers at all is in itself amazing, and is a gesture of respect for the genre on the part of Henley. One wonders how many of today’s “country” acts even know who Ira and Charlie were. I certainly can’t imagine the likes of Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean doing something this. Nor do I particularly want to. But I digress.

Dolly Parton is Don’s duet partner. Both Henley and Parton are pushing 70 — ancient in this youth-obsessed business, but they sound great and as they show the current generation of young artists (who are probably not paying a bit of attention) how it’s done. The steel guitar and the harmonies are beautiful — even if Dolly can’t sing quite as high as she did when she provided the harmony vocals to Emmylou Harris’ definitive 1977 version of the song. This will probably never be released as a single — and radio wouldn’t play it if it were, but it deserves to be heard and is worth downloading. Or you can listen to it here. This isn’t the best version of the song I’ve ever heard, but it’s easily one of the best recordings I’ve heard out of Nashville this year. Now if we could only get someone to write new songs this good.

Grade: A

Reissues wish list part 4: Capitol Records

wanda jacksonThe final part of this series looks at recordings issued on Capitol Records. Capitol didn’t have its own budget label but would lease old recordings to Pickwick and Hilltop.

Capitol Records was the smallest of the big four labels. Co-founder Johnny Mercer, a noted songwriter and performer, intended the label to be artist-friendly and so its rosters were relatively small. The major country artists for Capitol were Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Ferlin Husky, Tex Ritter, Faron Young, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson (not really a major country star), The Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Freddie Hart and Gene Watson.

For whatever reason, most of the major Capitol artists are well represented on CD, whether through Capitol’s own reissues, or the efforts of foreign labels such as Ace, Bear Family and Jasmine. Among the Capitol artists listed above I would like to see more domestic re-issues on Faron Young, Charlie Louvin and Sonny James, but there is much product available even for them.

Kenny Dale was a fine singer who had a few hits reach as high as #11 on Billboard’s country charts (some of them, such as “Bluest Heartache Of The Year” reached #1 in some regional markets). While Capitol’s New Zealand affiliate issued a nice compilation (and Kenny has frequently performed ‘down under’) there has been nothing available domestically.

While Bobbie Gentry was a relatively minor presence in country music, a good two CD set of her material is needed as she had some success in the international markets along with her domestic hits.

The Hager Twins (aka Jim & Jon Hager) spent many years on the television show Hee Haw and toured with great success right up to the day Jim Hager died on May 1, 2008 (Jon died on January 9, 2009). While they never had great recording success, they remained a popular act and did chart a few records. The Hager Twins issued three albums on Capitol and it is likely, since most Capitol albums of the era ran 25-27 minutes in length, that all three could fit onto a single CD.

Hailing from Beaumont, Texas (home of George Jones), Billie Jo Spears was a fine artist who would have her biggest hits later while with United Artists and would enjoy great success with audiences in Great Britain and Ireland. While with Capitol, Billie Jo released six albums and a minimum of thirteen singles with one top ten single. I believe that Capitol, Liberty and United Artists now are all owned by the same conglomerate so it should be possible to take the Capitol Recordings and her eight United Artist and two Liberty albums and make a really nice three or four CD set.

Tony Booth would be on my wish list; however, Heart of Texas Records has reissued all six of Tony’s early 1970s albums on three CDs, as well as some recent recordings. Tony stayed in the business as a front man for Gene Watson, and perhaps others. He is a very fine singer.

On the other hand, other than two now out-of print anthologies, nothing has been released on Susan Raye other than her duets with Buck Owens. A good two CD set should suffice for her.

After knocking around the business as a songwriter and an excellent journeyman performer for over fifteen years, “Easy Loving” propelled Freddie Hart to superstar status for the better part of a decade. Already 43 years old when “Easy Loving” hit #1, while with Capitol Freddie had six #1 records, five more that reached the top three, three more top ten singles and a bunch more chart records to go long with eighteen albums (and a hits collection). Freddie is fully worth a boxed set of 60-80 songs based on his Capitol years alone.

Gene Watson still is very active as a touring and recording artist. While he is still in great voice and issuing terrific albums, his commercial peak occurred during his years with Capitol Records. Gene released seven albums and two hits collections while with Capitol. The British Hux label issued six of the albums on two-fers, but the albums should be released domestically. Capitol should release all three albums on a three CD set and there wouldn’t be a bad song in the bunch.

Mel McDaniel was a journeyman artist with a few big hits and a bunch of lower charting records that were good recordings but that have never been collected in digital form. There is a hits collection with ten or twelve songs on it, and some minor labels have issued re-recordings of some of his hits along with some extraneous new material. What is needed is a two CD set covering all of his 40+ Capitol chart records. Although they weren’t big radio hits, songs such as “Love Lies”, “Play Her Back To Yesterday”, “Hello Daddy, Good Morning Darling”, “Henrietta” and “Blue Suede Blues” are all worth preserving.

Most people identify Wanda Jackson as a Rock & Roll or Rockabilly artist rather than a country artist and that fact may have impaired her career as a country artist. That said, she had a substantial country career as a performer and released at least fifteen country albums while with Capitol. There have been a few decent Wanda Jackson country anthologies, mostly on foreign labels but a really good box set of 80-100 country recordings is warranted. Wanda Jackson Salutes The Country Music Hall of Fame is one of my favorite albums and none of its tracks have made it to a digital format.

Album Review: Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen – ‘Bakersfield Bound’

chrishillmanAlthough not marketed as such, 1996’s Bakersfield Bound is, in many ways, a Desert Rose Band reunion album, as it finds Chris Hillman working with both Herb Pedersen and DRB steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness again. The music is decidedly more traditional and less commercial than anything that the Desert Rose Band ever attempted and that may be why Hillman and Pedersen avoided labeling it as such.

Despite its title and Hillman’s and Pedersen’s west coast roots, this is not, strictly speaking, a salute to the Bakersfield sound in the same vein as many of the tribute albums that have been released since Buck Owens died in 2006. There is a healthy dose of Bakersfield, to be sure, but there are plenty of non-Bakersfield influences as well. Hillman and Pedersen harmonize on the albums 13 tracks in ways that are in reminiscent at times of The Everly Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, and the Willburn Brothers as well as Buck Owens and Don Rich. The album’s first track “Playboy” was written by Eddie Miller, who was more famous for having written “There She Goes” for Carl Smith, “Thanks a Lot” for Ernest Tubb, and “Release Me” which was recorded by Kitty Wells and countless others. Hillman and Pedersen effectively channel The Louvin Brothers with an excellent cover of “My Baby’s Gone”. Also excellent is their version of “Lost Highway”, a 1948 composition by Leon Payne, which was most famously recorded by Hank Williams in 1949..

Perhaps the most surprising cover here is “Time Goes So Slow”, a beautiful waltz that was written by Skeeter Davis and Marie Wilson, which finds Herb Pedersen harmonizing at what has to be the very top of his register.

These songs aside, the meat and potatoes of this album are the Bakersfield tunes, which pay tribute to such legends as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Owens is saluted with covers of “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore”, “There Goes My Love”, and “Close Up The Honky Tonks”, which was written by Red Simpson. Haggard is represented by a cover of the Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin-penned “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. The album closes with two Hillman co-writes, “Just Tell Me Darlin'” and the title track.

This an outstanding album with impeccable song choices and excellent singing and picking throughout. It’s virtually impossible to select any favorite tracks, because they are all so good. It is a must-have for fans of Chris Hillman, The Desert Rose Band, and fans of roots music in general.

Grade: A+

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

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

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: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Brothers Of the Highway’

brothers of the highwayAfter a detour with their Statler Brothers tribute and two gospel releases, the duo who burst onto the bluegrass scene in 2008-2009 are back on Rounder with an exceptional album mixing old and new material. The duo is in fine form vocally, with Jamie Dailey generally taking the lead and Darrin Vincent providing a close harmony, but they vary the arrangements as best suits each song. The band is augmented by the brilliant fiddler Andy Leftwich and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others.

The sometimes frenetic pace and constantly changing rhythms of the opening ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’ make for an arresting start, and the music never let’s go. It is one of two Jamie Dailey compositions, and may be the first country or bluegrass song to be inspired by reading a Wikipedia article. The subject may have been garnered at second-hand, but the story sounds as authentic as if it were a traditional number, while the lengthy instrumental passages allow the band to show off their musical chops. Dailey’s other song here, ‘Back To Jackson County’, is pleasantly nostalgic about a childhood in the country. The similarly titled ‘Back To Hancock County’, written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, has a little more substance with its wistful consciousness of change. It is one of a few songs where Darrin shares the lead vocals with Jamie evenly, as they do on the playful Porter Wagoner top 20 country hit ‘Howdy Neighbor Howdy’, another opportunity for an instrumental showcase.

Dailey & Vincent are challenged only by the Gibson Brothers among current proponents of close bluegrass harmony, and their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is simply perfect. Darrin takes the lead vocal, and does an excellent job, with Jamie’s harmony vocal twining around it on the chorus to create a magical sound. Darrin also sings lead, and band members Jeff Parker and Christian Davis add a full spectrum of voices to the harmony on the well-played and sung but otherwise unremarkable ‘Big River’.

Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Close By’ gets Jamie’s highest high lonesome vocal with no harmony and more superb playing. ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone’ is a Wilma Lee Cooper song which has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists including Monroe; Dailey & Vincent’s version is as excellent as one would expect.

A gentle laid back take on ‘Brothers Of The Highway’, the ode to truckers recorded by George Strait on his Troubadour set, is an unexpected inclusion, but a very welcome one. Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers adds a third harmony voice. Gospel tune ‘It Will Be Wonderful Over There’ gets a Statlers-style gospel quartet arrangement.

Vince Gill’s ‘Hills Of Caroline’ gets a stripped down arrangement and spare lead vocal very reminiscent of Gill’s version, with a delicate harmony – simple and beautiful, and another outstanding moment. Kathy Mattea’s 80s chart-topper ‘Where’ve You Been’, with its sensitive portrayal of a couple divided by Alzheimers but united in love, has a full-scale string section backing Jamie’s vocal, making it the one song not to adhere to traditional bluegrass stylings. It works quite well, but is slightly out-of-place.

This is the best bluegrass album I’ve heard in a couple of years – and my favorite record so far this year.

Grade: A+

Get it at amazon.

Country Heritage: 25 from the ’80s

This article will focus on some artists who either had a very short period of great success or had an extended run of near-success. In other words, I cannot justify an entire article on any of them.

Deborah Allen was born in 1953 in Memphis, and probably has had greater success as a songwriter, having written hits for artists including Tanya Tucker, Sheena Easton and Janie Fricke. As a performer, RCA had the bright idea of dubbing her voice onto old Jim Reeves recordings to create duets. The three duets released as singles – “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” and “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me” – all went Top 10 in 1979-80. As a solo artist, Allen charted 10 times with three Top 10 singles: “Baby I Lied” (1983–#4), “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (1984–#2) and “I Hurt For You” (1984–#10).

Baillie and The Boys were a late 80s act which charted 10 times between 1987 and 1991 before disappearing from the charts. Seven of their hit records went Top 10, with “(I Wish I Had A) Heart of Stone” (1989–#4) being the biggest. Kathie Baillie was the lead singer, and while initially a trio, the group became a duo in 1988 with few people able to tell the difference.

Debby Boone is one of two answers to a trivia question – name the two families that have had a #1 pop record in each of three consecutive generations. One answer is obvious – the Nelson family – big band leader Ozzie Nelson (“And Then Some”, 1935), Rick Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”, 1958 and “Traveling Man”, 1960) and Rick’s sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson (recording, under the name Nelson, “Love and Affection”, 1990).
The Nelson family answer works top down and bottom up as the members of the chain are all blood relatives. In the case of Debby Boone’s family, it only works top down. Debby (“You Light Up My Life“, 1977), father Pat Boone (seven #1s from 1955-1961 including “Love Letters In The Sand“) and grandfather Red Foley – no blood relation to Pat Boone but a blood relation of Debby’s (“Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy”, 1950).

Debby Boone may be a direct direct descendant of the American pioneer Daniel Boone. She is distantly related to two stars of American television, Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel, Hec Ramsey) and Randy Boone, (The Virginian and Cimarron Strip).

Enough with the trivia – Debby charted on the country charts thirteen times from 1977-1981 although most of those were pop records that happened to chart country. Starting in 1979 Debby started consciously recording for country markets. “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own” reached #11 in early 1979. The next three records did relatively nothing but the first single issued in 1980 “Are You On The Road To Loving Me Again” finally made it to the top. She would chart four more singles before turning to gospel/Christian music.

Larry Boone is best known as a songwriter, having cuts by Kathy Mattea, Don Williams, Tracy Lawrence, Rick Trevino, George Strait, Shenandoah, Marie Osmond and Lonestar. As a singer, he wasn’t terribly distinctive – sort of a George Strait-lite.  Boone charted 14 singles from 1986-93, with only 1988’s “Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger” reaching the Top 10. The other Top 20 singles were “I Just Called To Say Goodbye Again” and a remake of “Wine Me Up” – both of which reached their peak chart positions in 1989.

Dean Dillon charted 20 times from 1979-93, with his biggest hit being “Nobody In His Right Mind (Would’ve Left Her)” which reached #25 in November, 1980. During 1982 and 83, RCA paired Dillon with fading star Gary Stewart, hoping for the kind of magic that was later achieved when Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were paired together. No real hits came of this collaboration, but the recordings were quite interesting and are available on CD.

Fortunately for Dillon, he is a far better songwriter than singer. His hits as a writer include George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” and more than a dozen George Strait Top 10s. In fact, Strait has recorded over 50 of Dillon’s songs, ensuring that the wolf will never again knock at Dean Dillon’s door.

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Classic Rewind: Connie Smith, Sharon White and Barbara Fairchild pay tribute to the Louvin Brothers – ‘My Baby’s Gone’

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: The O’Kanes – ‘The O’Kanes’

The O’Kanes brought the sibling-style close harmonies pioneered by the Louvin Brothers into the late 20th century. They were not in fact brothers, but the unrelated singer-songwriters Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane. But their voices melded exceptionally well and they created a little magic during their relatively short partnership in the 1980s. Writing together from 1984-1985, they worked on the material for their debut album, which was eventually released in 1986 when the New Traditional movement had made room for artists like this, who were a step outside the mainstream, combining very traditional country and more modern influences.

Their very close Louvin Brothers styled harmonies, catchy tunes, punchy and often acoustic bluegrass-influenced instrumentation and well-written lyrics were simultaneously modern yet retro, and a breath of fresh air. The material was almost all written by the duo. When their self-titled debut album was released in 1986, Jamie O’Hara had just enjoyed a #1 as writer of the Judds’ ‘Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ol’ Days)’, and the material he and Kieran Kane wrote together is consistently just as good.

Their debut single, the insistent mid-tempo ‘Oh Darlin’ (Why Don’t You Care For Me No More?)’ was a top 10 hit in 1986. The protagonist is baffled by the change in his loved one, when he hasn’t changed at all. A similar tempo and vibe took ‘Can’t Stop My Heart from Loving You’ all the way to #1. This time the protagonist is helplessly in love with a woman who he accuses “ you treat me badly and make me blue”, but the hypnotic edge makes the sad tale positively catchy.

The next single, another top 10 hit, is my favourite track. ‘Daddies Need To Grow Up Too’ is the affecting story of an absent father who regrets his choices and now promises his child he will change his ways:

You’re the hero in my eyes
You see
Daddies need to grow up too
Learn what they should and they shouldn’t do
In a way we’re a lot like you
We need some understanding
Daddies stumble
Daddies fall
We don’t really know it all
Gonna try to make it up to you
Daddies need to grow up too

The fourth single, the charming love song ‘Just Lovin’ You’, hit # 5. It has a lovely slightly old fashioned vibe, which is a delight to listen to. ‘When I Found You’ is another romantic ballad, but one which gains added impact from comparing the protagonists’ newfound happiness to past “love proved untrue”:

When I found you I lost the emptiness
So painfully locked away in my heart
Gone was the despair
That dreams don’t come true …

I lost my sorrow when I found you

‘Gonna Walk That Line’ is an irresistible declaration of love and commitment by a bad boy who has changed his ways and is prepared to settle down at last:

I’ve never been too good at doin’ right
Done mostly wrong most all my life…

I used to be a tomcat out on the prowl
Baby I’m just your puppydog now

The haunting ‘Bluegrass Blues’, the first song the duo wrote together, has a more downbeat attitude. ‘When We’re Gone, Long Gone’ is a quietly philosophical semi-gospel song with a very retro feel. The one song not written by the duo is a cover of the Elvis Presley hit ‘That’s Alright, Mama’, treated with an unexpected delicacy which makes an over-familiar song sound new.

The duo’s relatively short life means they have been largely forgotten, but the music on this album sounds as fresh today as it did in the 80s, and is well worth reviving. For what it’s worth, they are my personal favourite of the duos we’re spotlighting this month.

The CD is out of print, and not all tracks appear to be available digitally, but it’s worth tracking down if you can find a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘The Grass Is Blue’

Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.

The Grass Is Blue
is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+