My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Just Between You and Me’

Just_Between_You_and_Me_(Dolly_Parton_and_Porter_Wagoner_album_-_cover_art)Just Between You and Me was released in January 1968 and is notable for being the first collection of Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton duets, as well as Dolly’s first recordings for the RCA label. Bob Ferguson is the credited producer; however, it has been revealed that Porter, not Ferguson, was the actual producer of Dolly’s early solo recordings for RCA, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that Porter was also involved with the production of the Porter/Dolly duets.

The album contains just one single – a common practice in those days — which was released a few months ahead of the album. “The Last Thing on My Mind” was a remake of Tom Paxton’s folk-pop smash that was recorded by dozens of artists in various genres. It is quite different from the rest of the album, as well as Porter and Dolly’s future work, which was almost always solidly in the traditional country camp. The single charted at #7 and paved the way for many more duets which would occur over the next decade or so.

The title track is one of my favorites. Written by Jack Clement, it had been a hit earlier that year for another recent RCA signee by the name of Charley Pride. Another favorite, “Before I Met You” had been a hit for Carl Smith in 1956. Charley Pride also covered this one shortly after arriving at RCA. Pride’s version did not chart, but his version is the one I’m most familiar with. Porter and Dolly’s version is also quite good but it inexplicably omits the song’s last verse.

One of the reasons given for the eventual demise of the Wagoner/Parton partnership was Porter’s domineering attitude; it was apparently made abundantly clear from the start that he was the employer and Dolly was the employee. Porter never denied the accusation; however, none of that is apparent from listening to this collection of songs. Porter was clearly the bigger, more established star at this stage of the game, but there is no hogging of the spotlight. In fact, there seems to have been a concerted effort to use this album to promote Dolly’s career. It includes several songs penned by Dolly, including “Love is Worth Living” (the B-side of “The Last Thing on My Mind”), and “Mommie, Ain’t That Daddy” which is my least favorite song on the album. The melodramatic tale of a hopelessly alcoholic husband and father (who doesn’t seem to have done anything to remedy his circumstances) is a crass attempt to tug at the heartstrings. It was not the last song of this type that Porter and Dolly would record together, although most of their future songs of this ilk involved dying children. It’s a dud, but thankfully it’s the only album’s only misfire.

The album also includes several songs that Dolly co-wrote with her uncle Bill Owens. “Because One of Us Was Wrong” and “Two Sides of Every Story” are typical of the type of song Porter and Dolly would become famous for. “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” had been the most successful Owens/Parton composition up to that time. Bill Phillips had scored a Top 10 hit with it in 1966 (featuring Dolly as the uncredited harmony vocalist). Dolly recorded the song herself for her one and only Monument album. This remake with Wagoner is unusual in that it is not a duet; Dolly sings the lead throughout, while Porter harmonizes. Another observation: unlike most modern “duets” where the artists sing around each other, Porter and Dolly actually sing and harmonize together much of the time.

Just Between You and Me might not contain any of Porter and Dolly’s most famous hits, but it was a more than satisfactory introduction to one of country music’s best male-female duos.

Grade: A-

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The best re-issues of 2014

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

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. I am not sure what the cut-off point is for application of the 70 year copyright as I’ve seen varying reports, but it appears that recordings already out of copyright protection will remain in the public domain, but recordings released after 1962 will have the longer copyrights applicable (at least in the UK).

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

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

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2012 but became generally available during 2014 through various markets.

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

1. HANK THOMPSON – THE PATHWAY OF MY LIFE (1966-1984)
Released in late 2013, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family extravaganza grabs Hank’s recordings made for Warner Brothers, Dot , ABC, Churchill and MCA/Dot in a Deluxe 8 CD set with a booklet compiled with the assistance of Hank himself.

Hank Thompson’s biggest hits were recorded during his years with Capitol, but he still had a large number of hits after that. More importantly, he still was making great recordings. Although there are other artists I prefer to Hank Thompson, I regard Hank Thompson and Doc Watson as the two most consistent country artists of all time – neither of them ever made a bad recording. Hank’s four biggest hits of the post-Capitol era were “On Tap, In The Can or In The Bottle” (#8) , “Smoky The Bar” (#5), “The Older The Violin the Sweeter The Music “ (#8) and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open” (10). They are all here along with six more top twenty hits and a bunch of other chart records.

If you wonder how significant Hank Thompson was just ask George Strait. Ol’ George made one of his few guest appearances (and probably his first such appearance) with Hank Thompson on a mid 1980s recording of “A Six Pack To Go”.

just between you and me2. PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON – JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME – 1967-1976
Porter & Dolly were roughly contemporaries of the teams Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty and George Jones & Tammy Wynette. I have always regarded Porter & Dolly as the best male-female duet pairing ever. Their hits were not quite as big as those of the other two duets, but consider this: Loretta, Conway, George and Tammy were all top-tier stars. At the time these recordings were made, Porter Wagoner was a journeyman country singer who had a major label contract, an over-the-top personality and a syndicated television show to cover the fact that his big hits were fairly few, although he had experienced a bit of a revival in 1964-1969. Meanwhile Dolly Parton was an up and comer with no major hit records until 1970.

What made the pairing so special was the chemistry they had between them. George & Tammy may have been married for a while, but that spark that made the most trivial of songs special for Porter & Dolly was missing (I always regarded George’s best duet partner as Melba Montgomery, and although they did not especially get along, I felt Tammy’s best duets were with David Houston)

Conway & Loretta had more chemistry than George & Tammy but were never as involved in being a duet as Porter & Dolly as both had ‘big star’ careers to maintain.

Porter and Dolly recorded a lot of songs, and they are all here: sad songs (“Jeanie’s Afraid of The Dark“, “Just Someone I Used To Know”), happy songs (“Lost Forever In Your Kiss”), totally ridiculous songs (“Her and The Car and The Mobile Home Were Gone”, “Run That By Me One More Time”) and a plethora of simply good country songs from songwriters as diverse as Jack Clement, Dave Kirby, Tom Paxton and dozens of others. Six CDs worth of the best harmonies ever recorded with lavish book and the superb sound engineering for which Bear Family is famous.

Next some American labels get into the act …

ronnie milsap -the rca albums collection3. RONNIE MILSAP – THE RCA ALBUMS COLLECTION
Charley Pride was one of early supporters and many subsequent singers have cited Ronnie Milsap as a primary influence, including Vince Gill and Hunter Hayes. Since Milsap is a musical chameleon who can cover the gamut from Cajun to R&B to stone cold country and classic pop, it figures that he would have influenced a wide range of artists. Ronnie rang up a staggering number of hits including 40 #1 records in his long career. This set , consisting of 21 CDs covering his RCA output is overkill, but for a performer as gifted as Ronnie Milsap perhaps the overkill can be justified.

4. ZAC BROWN BAND – GREATEST HITS SO FAR …
They may look like something from Duck Dynasty but these fellows have a lot of talent. Moreover, this is an honest hits collection – no previously unissued tracks, jut fourteen hit singles starting with their first #1 from 2008 in “Chicken Fried” and finishing with “Sweet Annie” from 2013. If you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, this is a ‘must-have’ (and if you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, shame on you).

back to the Europeans …

the louvin brothers - complete recorded works5. THE LOUVIN BROTHERS – COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS 1952-1962
This is one of those European sets consisting of six CDs (143 songs) encompassing the Louvins’ output on Capitol Records – generally available for $20.00 or less. I don’t know much about the label (Enlightenment), and their product comes with fairly bare bones packaging but it is the music that matters, and few acts ever mattered as much as Ira & Charlie Louvin. The digital sound is quite decent. The set encompasses twelve of the Louvins’ albums, several of which are primarily religious material. The set isn’t quite complete as there were a few singles which did not make it to an album until much later including “When I Stop Dreaming” and “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”.

6. GEORGE JONES SINGS HANK AND BOB
Hank Williams and Bob Wills were two of the country greats and George Jones paid tribute to them in three albums recorded in the late 1950s – early 1960s. Collected here on the Not Now label are the Mercury album George Jones Salutes Hank Williams and the United Artist albums George Jones Sings Bob Wills and My Favorites of Hank Williams. Supposedly, George wasn’t much of a Bob Wills fan, but you couldn’t prove it by me. If George felt he didn’t have much feel for western swing he must be judging by an impossibly high standard as this is great stuff. Every album should be like this: great music sung by a master singer.

My biggest complaint about this set is the sequencing – two CDs each with 12 Hank songs followed by six of Bob’s songs.

7. JOHNNY CASH – THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION
This collection, also on the Not Now label, is comprised of two CDs containing 38 songs. This is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a good value – the sound is good and the songs contained herein are beyond essential. This is where it all started for the man in black. IMHO, there is no such thing as too much Johnny Cash. There have been better collections of the Sun recordings, but this one is available now, and at a nice price.

8. CARL PERKINS – THE ROCKABILLY YEARS
This collection, on the One Day label, is comprised of two CDs containing 40 songs. As with the Cash collection above, this is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. No complaints about the material, the performances or the sound quality. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a must – just don’t step on my blue suede shoes in your haste to buy this set.

eddy arnold -the complete chart singles9. EDDY ARNOLD – THE COMPLETE CHART SINGLES (1945-1962)
In terms of the number of weeks his singles stayed at #1 (143 weeks according to Billboard) Eddy Arnold is the all-time country music leader, 33 weeks ahead of Webb Pierce and miles ahead of George Strait, Dolly Parton or anyone else. This three CD set collects 77 of Eddy’s chart hits through 1962 which means that it pulls up just short of Eddy’s mid 1960s revival that started with “What’s He Doing In My World” and “Make The World Go Away”. No matter – the 1940s material was better than anything Eddy contrived to record during the 1960s and the 1950s recordings, while not always the biggest hits , were usually fairly interesting as Eddy experimented with his sound and expanded his repertoire to include folk and pop material. I would consider the first to CDs to be absolutely essential and the third CD as very good. The folks at Acrobat released this fine collection and included a fine booklet to go with the set.

10. JOHNNY HORTON – NORTH TO ALASKA AND OTHER GREAT HITS (The Early Albums)
Johnny Horton (1925-1960) was one of Johnny Cash’s best friends (and fishing buddy) and had a brief period of time in which his material dominated the country charts and made serious inroads onto the pop charts. This set collects his earlier (and largely unsuccessful) recordings for Dot and his initial recordings for Columbia. Don’t let the ‘early albums’ description fool you – since Horton was killed in a car crash in 1960, there are no later albums except label creations.

The set contains two CDs and 60 songs including all of the Columbia hits including “The Battle of 1814” and “North To Alaska” – good stuff. This is on the Jasmine label – apparently briefly available in 2012 and now available again in the USA

I didn’t review any of the Gusto/Starday/King/ Cindy Lou recordings this time around but check out the Gusto website. Gusto has the habit a repackaging earlier albums into nice box sets – for instance a few years ago they combined three Mel Street albums into a 58 song boxed set. Another label to check on is Heart of Texas Records which has reissued old Capitol and Step One sets on artists such as Tony Booth and Curtis Potter.

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 6

Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

Memory Machine“– Jack Quist
This 1982 song about a jukebox reached #52. I don’t know anything about Jack Quist other than that he originally was from Salt Lake City, but I am familiar with the song’s writer Ted Harris as he wrote such classics as “Paper Mansions” and “Crystal Chandeliers”.

eddie rabbittOn Second Thought” – Eddie Rabbitt
Released in 1989, this song peaked at #1 in early 1990. This was Eddie’s most traditional sounding hit and my favorite of all of Eddie’s recordings.

Don’t It Make Ya Wanna Dance” – Bonnie Raitt
This song was from the soundtrack of Urban Cowboy and reached #42.

Right Hand Man” – Eddy Raven

Eddy had sixteen consecutive top ten records from 1984-1989. This song is my favorite although it only reached #3. Eddy would have five #1 records during the decade with “Joe Knows How To Live” and “Bayou Boys” being the biggest hits.

She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)” – Jerry Reed
There are few artists that could get away with recording a song with such a title but Jerry Reed was that one of a kind who could. The song reached #1 in 1982, one of Jerry’s few #1 records. There are those who consider Jerry to have been the best guitar player ever (Chet Atkins among them). Jerry passed away a few years ago perhaps depriving the genre of its greatest all-around talent.

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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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Country Heritage: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton

I don’t suppose anyone would rate either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton as the greatest male and/or female singers in country music. Yes, they were both good singers and dynamic personalities, and yes, Kevin over at County Universe ranked Dolly #1 on his list of the 100 Greatest Female Singers, but Kevin was considering her career in its totality (singer, songwriter, live performer, film actress, and television star), not just her vocal prowess. Yet, when it came to performing as a male-female duet, there were none better than Porter and Dolly. While other male–female duets may have had chart topping records (George Jones & Tammy Wynette; Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty) none charted more records. And remember this, when George & Tammy and Loretta & Conway paired up, each of the artists involved was among the top three male or female singers at the time of the pairing.

Not so for Porter and Dolly. The first Porter & Dolly duet made its chart debut on December 2, 1967. As of that date Porter Wagoner had emerged as a solid journeyman performer who had charted 27 times, with twelve top tens and fifteen other songs that cracked the top thirty. He did have a good stage show and a syndicated television show that make him a familiar figure to households across the south, but after his first four chart hits had hit the top ten in 1954-1956, only eight top ten records had graced the charts for Porter.

Meanwhile Dolly Parton had only charted two records, both on the Monument label, “Dumb Blonde” (#24 Billboard / #10 Cashbox ) and “Something Fishy” (#17 on both Billboard and Cashbox). Dolly’s first six RCA singles failed to reach the top ten, four of them falling between #40 and #50 on Billboard’s Country Charts. In fact, it would not be until July 1970 that Dolly Parton would have her first RCA top ten solo single when her take on the old Jimmie Rodgers classic “Mule Skinner Blues” hit #1 on Record World, #2 on Cashbox and #3 on Billboard.

I won’t recount the story of how Porter lost his “girl singer” Norma Jean Beasler and eventually found Dolly Parton as her replacement. Suffice it to say that Porter and Dolly teamed up for a dozen memorable albums before splitting up. The vocal blend they achieved defies explanation although some tried to explain it. On the liner notes of The Best of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Nashville publicist Paul Soelberg wrote as follows:

“… Another phrasing technique they’ve mastered is the ability to emphasize the beginning of a key word followed with a superbly timed withdrawal of that emphasis. The impact is overwhelming.

They do all this in perfect harmony. Generally Dolly sings the melody (lead), and Porter sings tenor harmony. But the effect seems reversed, for Porter, whose voice is lower, sounds as if he’s singing melody while Dolly’s high soprano seems to be carrying the harmony. It seems like we are getting four vocal parts out of two people!”

I’m not sure that explanation makes much sense to me, but then, it didn’t need to make sense. All I had to do was listen to the recordings to be able to tell that something special was happening.

The magic started with “The Last Thing On My Mind”. While this was not their biggest hit, it may have been the most important hit in that it established Porter and Dolly as a duet and it introduced country audiences to one of the most important folk songwriters in Tom Paxton. While Paxton had been almost totally unknown to country audiences, except those more attuned to bluegrass, after this recording it many country artists started recording his material, especially this song but also Paxton classics like “Bottle of Wine”. Charley Pride electrified the audience using “Last Thing On My Mind” with essentially the Porter and Dolly arrangement as the opening track to his Live At Panther Hall album. After this the next eight Porter & Dolly singles reached the top ten on one chart or the other with their third single “We’ll Get Ahead Some Day” featuring a B-side that charted in “Jeannie’s Afraid of The Dark”, a song that became one of their most requested concert songs. The big breakthrough came with their remake of a 1962 George Jones hit “A Girl I Used To Know” which in their hands became “Just Someone I Used To Know”, reaching #1 on Record World’s country charts.

Porter and Dolly had a collective sense of humor that few couples could match. While “We’ll Get Ahead Some Day” was somewhat humorous treatment of a serious matter, most of the singles were serious, if sometimes nostalgic (such as “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man”). On their albums; however, anything was possible with religious songs, serious ballads and tender love songs being mixed in with some of the most outrageously funny songs such as “Run That By Me One More Time” (from Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca), “Fight and Scratch” (from Once More) , “Her And The Car And The Mobile Home” (from The Right Combination) and “I’ve Been Married (Just As Long As You Have)” (from We Found It).

The Porter Wagoner – Dolly Parton duets established Dolly Parton as a star. Eventually, of course, the duet came apart as Dolly sought freedom from the restraints that Porter Wagoner placed on her recordings. The split, when it came, was acrimonious but eventually both came to understand the value of what they had achieved as a pair. As noted author John Morthland observed “Yes, Porter Wagoner held her back in some ways, but once she was free of him, she wasted no time overcompensating grotesquely in the opposite direction.”

I agree that Dolly Parton is a great artist, worthy of the accolades that she has received, but while she has recorded many great records as a solo artist, no other great artist has released as many truly terrible records as Dolly Parton. Her greatness was established in her duets with Porter Wagoner and there isn’t a dud in the bunch.

I think I’ll head over to my turntable, pop me a Diet Dr. Pepper and listen to my all-time favorite duet. I suggest that you do likewise as you read the My Kind of Country spotlight presentation on the unforgettable Dolly Parton.

APPENDIX A – THE SINGLES OF PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON

APPENDIX B – PORTER AND DOLLY ON CD

There have been a bunch of anthologies on the market over the past twenty years but never a comprehensive overview (are you listening, Richard Weitze?)

Porter and Dolly recorded well over a hundred songs as a duo, all on RCA, yet I would guess that only about fifty actual song titles have been released over the years on a bunch of maddeningly overlapping collections. There are four titles currently available from my usual source, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop:

1) Twenty Greatest Hits – this is issued on the TeeVee label, an offshoot of Gusto/King
2) All American Country – Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – BMG Special Products – only ten songs
3) Best Of The Best – King – another ten song cheapie
4) The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – RCA – twenty songs

I didn’t actually count the overlap, but I suspect if you purchased all four of the CDs listed above, you’d have a total of about thirty different songs.

Collectors Choice Music has an additional CD available, Porter and Dolly – this is a straight up reissue of an old RCA album but gives you about eight more songs not found on the other collections.