My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tommy Collins

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

Music In My Heart is Charley’s first new album since Choices, which was issued in 2011. Charley is now 79 years old; however, his voice seems to have hardly aged at all. I suspect that he may have lost a little off the top of his range but the quality of what remains is outstanding.

Noted songwriter Billy Yates served as the producer of this album, as well as providing several of the songs and singing background on a few of the songs. Yates provides Charley with an updated version of the Nashville Sound minus the strings and soulless vocal choruses. Such stalwarts as Mike Johnson, Robby Turner and Scotty Sanders handle the steel guitar, while Stuart Duncan handles fiddle and mandolin.

The album opens up with the Tommy Collins classic “New Patches” that served up the last top ten single for Mel Tillis back in 1984.

Now and then an old friend tries to help me
By telling me there’s someone I should meet
But I don’t have the heart to start all over
‘Cause my heart is laying at another’s feet

[Chorus:]
You just don’t put new patches on old garments
I don’t want no one else on my mind
I just don’t need nobody new to cling to
I still love someone I’ve known a long long time

“Country” Johnny Mathis (1930-2011), so named so as to not be mistaken for the pop singer of the same name, is nearly forgotten today, but he was a fine songwriter and “Make Me One More Memory” is a fine mid-tempo song, handled with aplomb by Pride.

Take my heart, my soul, my heaven
Take my world away from me
All I ask is one last favor
Make me one more memory

Ben Peters provided Charley with many big hits so it is natural for Pride to raid the Ben Peters songbag for material. Co-written with son Justin Peters, “Natural Feeling For You” is the kind of ballad that could have been a hit during the 1970s or 1980s.

“All By My Lonesome” reminds me of the 1992 Radney Foster song “Just Call Me Lonesome”, although this song comes from Billy Yates and Terry Clayton. This is a mid-tempo ballad with a solid vocal by Pride.

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

Drinkin’ and cryin’
So close to dyin’
I’m next to no one
All by my lonesome

Thanks for sendin’ someone by to see if I’m alright
I appreciate your concern tonight
But I don’t need no company
To offer up their sympathy
If it ain’t you then I would rather be

All by my lonesome
Heart broke and then some
Watchin’ ol’ re-runs
On my TV

“It Wasn’t That Funny” was written by Yates and Dobby Lowery. The song is a lovely ballad about an almost breakup, that a couple experienced and can laugh about now, but brought moments of anguish along the way.

Lee Bach penned “The Same Eyes That Always Drove Crazy”, a mid-tempo ballad of a chance meeting after years of separation. This song would have made a good single at any point before about 2005. The song features some really nice steel guitar by Mike Johnson and piano by Steve Nathan.

Billy Yates and Billy Lawson chipped in the introspective ballad “I Learned A Lot”, in which the narrator relives the lessons he’s learned from losing his previous love. The song first appeared on Billy’s album Only One George Jones.

“You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine” was written by Lee Bach, Larry Mercey and Dave Lindsey. The title references what was on the jukebox the first time the narrator met his love. The song has a nice Texas shuffle arrangement (the song references the Ray Price classic “Crazy Arms” and mentions taking out Ray’s old records). Again, this is another song that would have made a good single in bygone years.

“The Way It Was in ‘51” was written by Merle Haggard and was the title track for one of the Hag’s great albums and was the B-side of Hag’s “The Roots of My Raising”.

Sixty-Six was still a narrow two-lane highway
Harry Truman was the man who ran the show
The bad Korean War was just beginning
And I was just three years too young to go

Country music hadn’t gone to New York City yet
And a service man was proud of what he’d done
Hank and Lefty crowded every jukebox
That’s the way it was in fifty one

“Lee Bach” wrote “I Just Can’t Stop Missing You”, a nice ballad that makes for a good album track but wouldn’t ever have been considered for a single. This song apparently has keyboards mimicking the sound of strings giving it more of a Nashville Sound production than the other tracks on the album.

“Whispering Bill” Anderson wrote “You Lied To Me” a song that I don’t think he ever recorded, but Tracy Byrd recorded it on his 1995 album Love Lessons. Charley does a bang up job with the song

You looked at me as only you can look at me
You touched my cheek and told me not to cry
But you said you’d found somebody you loved more than me
And you told me I’d forget you by and by

But you lied to me, yes you lied to me
You said time would close the wound that bled inside of me
But every breath I take brings back your memory
You said I’d forget you, but you lied to me

“Standing In My Way” comes from Billy Yates and Jim McCormick, an interesting ballad of self-recriminations.

The album closes with a spritely up-tempo number from “Country” Johnny Mathis, “Music In My Heart”.

I really liked this album. In fact I would regard this as Charley’s best album in over twenty years. I like the song selections, I like the arrangements and I like Charley’s vocals. Radio won’t play these songs but they should – it’s their loss! Maybe Willie’s Roadhouse will play it – after all octogenarian Willie believes in giving the youngsters a chance. This album doesn’t have a dud among its tracks – solid A.

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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Runaway Train’

runaway-trainThis is Flatt Lonesome’s third album and each has been a slight improvement on the album before, a difficult task since the debut and second albums were indeed excellent. On my list of favorite albums of 2016, I had Runaway Train at number two on my list and I gave serious thought to placing it at #1.

Flatt Lonesome hails from Callahan Florida, a town just big enough to avoid jokes about the entering and leaving signs being on the same signpost. They have become huge favorites at the bluegrass festivals for the simplest of reasons – they sing well, are very proficient on their instruments, and select great songs to record. The group is essentially a family band with sisters Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson joining brother Buddy Robertson in handling most of the vocals. Kelli plays mandolin, Charli plays fiddle and Buddy plays guitar. Paul Harrigill, who entered the family by marrying Kelsi, plays banjo and other instruments as needed. Non-family members Michael Stockton (dobro & lap steel) and Dominick Illingworth (bass) round out the team.

The album opens with a tune written by Danny Roberts (of the Grascals) and Paul Harrigill titled “You’ll Pay”. Buddy takes the lead vocals with his sisters adding harmony vocals on this song about retribution.

Next up is “Still Feeling Blue”, a song by Gram Parsons, a would-be country artist of the 1960s. Kelli takes the lead vocals with her siblings providing the harmony vocals. Parsons was greatly influenced by the Louvin Brothers and it definitely shows on this composition. This really is a good song and the trio vocal work just shines on this song.

Time can pass and time can heal
But it don’t ever pass the way I feel
You went away a long time ago
And why you left I never knew
The lonely days and lonely nights
Guess the world knows I ain’t feelin’ right
And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow
And now I’m still feeling blue

Dwight Yoakam would seem to be an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover, but “You’re The One” really is a great vehicle for Charli’s lead vocals and the harmony trios. This song, a slow ballad, was a huge hit on bluegrass radio.

Kelsi penned “In The Heat of The Fire” and takes the lead vocals on a fine religiously themed mid-temp ballad. Michael Stockton takes a nice dobro break and Charli does likewise on a fiddle break.

If you’re like Jonah
In the belly of the whale
Running so far
And headed for hell
Cry out to him
He’ll hear your voice
And answer your prayer

He’s in the valley
He’s in the storm
He’ll be your shelter
He’ll keep you warm
He is your solid rock
In the midst of the mire
You can still hear his voice
In the heat of the fire

The Bluegrass Cardinals wrote and recorded many fine songs during their two plus decade run. “Don’t Come Running” by the father and son team of Don and Dave Parmley is just one of the many fine songs, Buddy takes the lead on this song.

Well you tell me today you were going far away
You tell me you wanna be free
But if your new friend breaks your heart in the end
Don’t you come running back to me

Oh my darling go and stay if you want it that way
You don’t love me and that is plain to see
If your new love turns you down, I won’t be hangin’ round
So don’t you come running back to me

Kelsi penned “In The Morning”, a nice religious ballad. This time sister Charli takes the lead vocals.

“Road To Nottingham” is an instrumental written by Paul Harrigill and Brayden McMahon. The song gives the entire band an opportunity to shine.

Dolton Robertson II is the father of Charli, Kelsi and Buddy but it turns out that he is a pretty good songwriter as “New Lease On Life” attests. Charli sings the lead vocal and Kelsi takes the harmony vocals.

“Casting All Your Care On Him” was a husband and wife collaboration between Paul and Kelsi, with Kelsi taking the lead vocals and her siblings taking the harmony on this up-tempo religious song.

When I first heard “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” on XM Radio I was floored that a group this young could unearth an old Tommy Collins-Merle Haggard classic from the mid 60s. The song first saw the light of day in 1966 on Collins’ first Columbia album The Dynamic Tommy Collins. Haggard recorded the song in 1967 on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album. It probably isn’t fair to compare Buddy Robertson to either Collins or Haggard, I would say that he acquits himself well, and manages to imbue the spirit of Tommy Collins into his vocals. It should be noted that both Collins and Haggard used the title “Poor Broke Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

Paul & Kelsi collaborated on “Letting Go”, a downer of a song that asks if love ever really existed.

The album closes with “Runaway Train”, written by Australian artist Kasey Chambers . This song isn’t even remotely a bluegrass song, but is the mark of a group’s excellence that they can take left field material such as this and make it fit in the context of a bluegrass album.

I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take ya where your heart won’t break ya
And the water tastes like wine
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line

We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we’ll live off honey
When the train goes underground
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round

Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, the first of many such awards that will be forthcoming for this talented group. In terms of trio harmony, they have few peers. This is a group will continue to grow in stature. I can hardly wait for their next album.

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Craig Morgan’

CraigMorganAlbumIt is hard to believe that Craig Morgan’s debut album, released by Atlantic Records, came way back in 2000. While this album proved to be a false start for the 36 year old Morgan in that Atlantic shut down its Nashville operations in 2002, the resulting album revealed the US Army veteran to be a fine singer capable of drawing both on past experiences and imagination in selling a song.

The album opens up “Paradise”, a song written by Craig with Harley Allen. The initial military cadence sets the song apart from any other song I’ve heard recently. The song tells of Craig’s experience as a soldier and how it affected his outlook on life. As the chorus to the song notes:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die

Now I’m a little older and not afraid to try

Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive

When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life

Is paradise

“Paradise was the second single released and topped out at #46, more a reflection of Atlantic’s promotional efforts than the song’s merits.

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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: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

Album Review: Faron Young – ‘You Don’t Know Me’

you don't know meThe friendly folks at Cracker Barrel have released something I thought I would never see – a new album of Faron Young recordings.

This album is somewhat similar to CONNIE SMITH – THE LOST TAPES in that it is taken from live takes, old radio shows and some studio recordings that never were released. Unlike the Connie Smith recordings, these were one track recordings, not in a finished state.

Producer Scott Oliver of Country Rewind Records, took the incomplete tracks and added additional instrumentation, vocal backings and some orchestration to create recordings that would fit comfortably on country radio during the last wave of neo-traditionalism (roughly 1986-2001). Many of the tracks were cut on acetate pressings that were intended for a single play on the radio. As such, some of the tracks required painstaking repair efforts. If I had to guess. most of the vocals were originally recorded in one take resulting in vocals that sound spontaneous and alive.

The basic sound is crisp and clean and modern. Faron’s vocal performances are very good. There is no information as to the additional musicians used on the collection, but Faron’s son Robyn Young wrote the liner notes. I would guess the original radio tracks and demos came from the mid-to-late 1960s as none of the songs feature hits from the 1970s. Because the tracks were meant for radio shows, a few of the tracks run under two minutes (“Alone With You” runs only ninety seconds) so the total playing time of the disc is just over 35 minutes.

The songs are as follows:

“I’ve Got Five Dollars (and It’s Saturday Night)” – this song was #4 hit for Faron in 1956 (the duo of George Jones & Gene Pitney also had a hit with it in 1965) and is taken at a very brisk tempo.

“Hello Walls” – this Willie Nelson-penned song was Faron’s biggest seller spending nine weeks at #1 in 1961 and selling over a million records. The 1961 hit recording was not very country, having been aimed squarely at the pop charts (it reached #12). This recording turns it back into a country song with country fiddles and steel guitar being featured prominently in the mix.

“A Place For Girls Like You” – this song was Faron’s third chart single, reaching #8 in 1954. This version picks up the tempo a bit from the original version.

“She Went A Little Bit Farther” – Faron recorded for Capitol; Records until 1962, switching over to Mercury in 1963. This song reached #14 for Faron in 1968. Faron’s chart success was very up and down during his first five years with Mercury as he sought to repeat the pop success of “Hello Walls”. In 1969 Faron went back to being a traditional country singer. This version is a little faster than the recorded single version and a little more country.

“You Don’t Know Me” was written by the legendary Cindy Walker from an idea supplied by Eddy Arnold. Eddy had a top ten hit with the song in 1956 and Ray Charles had a #2 pop hit with it in 1962. This recording would have made a great single for Faron had it existed and been released during Faron’s lifetime.

“I Guess I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” – I love the steel guitar work on this recording. Faron’s 1967 single only reached #48. This is a much better recording, a likely top five record had this been the released version.

“Goin’ Steady” was Faron’s first charted single in 1953, probably written by Hank Williams (1). The single reached #2 in its first trip to the charts. Apparently Faron wasn’t completely satisfied with the original hit version as he re-recorded the song numerous times during the next decade, gradually picking up the tempo until he issued a new single of the song for Mercury in 1970. The Mercury version reached #5 and features aggressive use of fiddles and steel guitar. On the version featured here, Faron’s vocals have just about reached the tempo of the Mercury recording, Although I like the Mercury version better than this recording, this is a very good recording

“Unmitigated Gall” reached #7 in 1966 for Faron. This is a good version although not a revelation and not terribly different in its net effect from the released single version

“I Miss You Already” went top five for Faron in 1957. This version was taken from a radio show and is quite good, again nothing revelatory but quite interesting. Nice steel and fiddle work

To younger minds, it must be impossible to conceive of this song being a hit single. Be that as it may, “I Just Came To Get My Baby (Out of Here)” went to #8 for Faron Young in 1968. The arrangement here is a little more country sounding that the hit single.

Faron Young had the first hit single on “Sweet Dreams” back in 1956, charting about six weeks before writer Don Gibson’s version hit the charts. Faron’s version reached #2 on the charts. This is a solid country version. For my money Faron Young was the best interpreter of this song, better than Don Gibson, Patsy Cline or anyone else that followed.

“If You Ain’t Lovin (You Ain’t Livin’)” was Faron’s fourth chart single back in 1954 reaching #2 in early 1955. This Tommy Collins tune was recorded by many artists during the 1950s and 1960s. I like this version very much.

“Alone With You” – according to Billboard, this was Faron’s biggest hit spending thirteen weeks at #1 in 1958. This version is taken at a very fast tempo, finishing up in ninety breath-taking seconds. Very solid fiddle and steel guitar on this track. I love this track, I just wish it lasted a little longer.

I don’t remember “You Had A Call” – it wasn’t a single and if I heard it before, it passed by unnoticed. Not so this version, which caught my attention the within the first few notes. Unlike most of the songs on this collection, this is a slow ballad with a mostly understated arrangement that lets Faron’s voice take center stage.

“Live Fast Love Hard Die Young” was Faron’s first #1 single back in 1955, spending three weeks atop the charts. This version, from a radio show, is slightly faster than the original recording. The instrumental breaks on the recording are very good and very country. The song is a perfect ending to a very entertaining album. I just wish they had found a few more songs to lengthen the album a bit.

(1) The legend says Hank gave Faron the rights to “Goin’ Steady” in exchange for which Faron would give up dating Billie Jean Eschelman, a young lady both had been dating. Billie Jean would become the second Mrs. Hank Williams and in a bizarre twist of fate, would also be the widow of Johnny Horton.

Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s: Part 7

honey i dare youIt’s been a while since my last installment of this series. Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Honey (Open That Door)” – Ricky Skaggs
The early 1980s belonged to Ricky Skaggs as he racked up eight #1 records before the end of 1984. Some of his records were bluegrass/country hybrids, others, like this cover of Mel Tillis-penned Webb Pierce record were more straightforward country. This record topped the charts in 1984 and had a very amusing video to accompany it.

A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After disappearing from the charts for six years, Connie emerged with this excellent single in 1985. Epic didn’t give the record much of a promotional push so it only reached #71, but it was one of my ten favorite records for the year 1985.

He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills”– Margo Smith
Margo Smith has a short run of chart success in the late 1970s but by the end of the decade her run was almost over. This 1980 record would stall at #52 and other than a pair of duets with Rex Allen Jr., she would not see the top forty again. Margo is still an active performer and lives in the Villages, FL. When she’s feeling well, she can still yodel with the best of them.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street”– Sammi Smith
Sammi’s last top twenty record, reaching #16 in 1981. Sammi should have become a much bigger star than she did.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-el Sonnier
This Cajun accordion player had two top ten records for RCA in 1988 before fading away. Cajun has never been mainstream so he didn’t figure to have too many hits (and he didn’t). This record reached #9 and the one before it “No More One More Time” reached 7. Nothing else reached the top twenty.

Hasn’t It Been Good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
Hank’s eighty-fifth chart hit and the very last singles chart appearance for ‘The Singing Ranger’. This song crept to #80 in 1980. Hank would only record one more time after the album from which this album was issued, a duet album with Willie Nelson a few years later. Read more of this post

Album Review: Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

BakersfieldIn recent years, covers and tributes albums have been a dime a dozen; it seems that nearly every artist past his or her commercial peak has released a collection of songs that he/she grew up listening to. Bakersfield, the recently released effort from Vince Gill and steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin, takes a different approach; instead of paying tribute to a particular artist or compiling their favorite songs, they opted to pay homage to a specific sub-genre of country music: the Bakersfield Sound, which emerged in California in the late 1950s, in response to the increasingly crossover-oriented countrypolitan music being made in Nashville at the time.

The two most successful and well-known Bakersfield artists were Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and it is from their catalogs that the material on Bakersfield is culled. Although some of Buck’s and Merle’s big hits are represented here, Gill and Franklin, who produced the project themselves, also delved deeper into the two legends’ discographies and included some lesser known gems.

There isn’t a Vince Gill album that I don’t own, so from the time that this project was announced it was a must-have for me. Paul Franklin’s participation was a bonus, as it ensured that the album would include a generous amount of pedal steel guitar, arguably the most important instrument in country music, and one that is criminally underrepresented on most contemporary country recordings.

Although I did initially have some reservations that Vince could do justice to some of the Haggard tunes, he rises to the occasion most of the time. Both “Branded Man” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” are performed beautifully with the wonderful Dawn Sears taking over harmony duties from Bonnie Owens. However, “The Fightin’ Side Of Me”, while good, doesn’t pack the same punch as Merle’s original 1969 version. I’m not as intimately familiar with the Buck Owens material, so I’m inclined to slightly favor the ones that are newer to me, namely “But I Do” and “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”.

I can find no fault with the material or how it is performed; these recordings are impeccably performed and are a reminder of what country music once was and what it ought to be. The album falls short only in what it does not provide — namely, more music. It contains a mere ten tracks and clocks in at just under 37 minutes. I wish that it contained a few more tracks, and that Gill and Franklin had seen fit to include a few songs from other Bakersfield artists. It’s inevitable that Owens and Haggard will dominate a project like this one, but it would have been nice to have heard a Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins or Maddox Brothers and Rose song or two. Let’s hope that a second volume is in the works to rectify these omissions.

It goes without saying that Bakersfield will receive no support from country radio, but it is worthy of a Grammy nomination and I hope that it sells respectably and gets the critical acclaim that it so richly deserves.

Grade: A+

Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

The 10 best reissues of 2011

I probably spent more money on reissues of old music this year than I did on new music, although I purchased lots of new music. Here is my list of the best reissues of 2011 – just one man’s opinion, listed in no particular order.  No fellow travelers such as Americana, just real country music (at least in my top ten).

 

JESSI COLTER – I’M JESSI COLTER / DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

The Australian label Raven, has issued a number of American country music albums, usually in the form of two-fers. Here Raven presents two albums from the talented Jessi Colter, mother of modern day artist Shooter Jennings and widow of legendary performer Waylon Jennings. While Jessi wasn’t the most prolific recording artist and is actually well served by several of the anthologies available, it is nice to have two of her Capitol albums available, as she originally conceived them.

Her first album for Capitol Records, I’M JESSI COLTER (1975), spawned the #1 Country / #5 Pop hit “I’m Not Lisa” and the follow-up hit “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes”. The album was produced by Waylon Jennings, and features many of the musicians who played on his albums (Reggie Young, Weldon Myrick, Ritchie Albright, Jim Gordon ) but no one would ever mistake the arrangements as anything that would ever appear on a Waylon album, as he deftly tailors the production to fit his bride’s  individual talents. An early take on “Storms Never Last” minus Waylon, is my favorite track on the album. DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH (1976) wasn’t quite as successful reaching #4 on the Country chart and yielding the hits “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” (No.29 Country) and “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon?)”. The title track “Diamond in the Rough” gives Jessi a chance to stretch and show her blues sensibilities.

This set includes a nice and informative booklet and three bonus tracks from a later Capitol album. If you have no Jessi Colter in your collection, this is a good starting point. Read more of this post

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Back To The Barrooms’

Released in October 1980, the last mainstream album Haggard recorded for MCA (a gospel release was his swan song for the label) was a concept album of sorts, on the classic country themes of broken hearts and honky tonks, with drinking and casual barroomhook-ups frequently serving as some kind of consolation for lost love. The traditional themes and basic country structures of the songs are counterpointed with a sometimes adventuruous production courteous of Jimmy Bowen, with extensive but tasteful use of brass giving a faint Dixieland jazz feel. Three quarters of the songs were written by Haggard, and, as a group, they form Haggard’s strongest collection in some years.

The downbeat melancholy of ‘Misery And Gin’ was originally recorded for the soundtrack of now-forgotten Clint Eastwood vehicle Bronco Billy (which had also produced Haggard’s first #1 hit of the 80s, his jovial duet with Eastwood, ‘Bar Room Buddies’, which was presumably not thought worthy of repeating here). ‘Misery And Gin’ is a great song, written by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, shows the pain hiding behind the outward joviality of a barroom crowd, the protagonist hooking up with a fellow loser in love with only themselves to blame for their single status. Garrett produced the track, sweetening the downbeat mood with strings, as Haggard bemoans,

Here I am again mixing misery and gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
I look like I’m havin’ a good time, but any fool can tell
That this honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell

It peaked at #3. The defeated honky tonker ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’, another classic number, with tinkling bar room piano cementing the mood, took him back to the top of the charts.

It was followed to radio by top 10 hit ‘Leonard’, a fond tribute to Tommy Collins, a Bakersfield singer-songwriter whose real name was Leonard Sipes, and who had been an early friend and inspiration to Haggard. The song, possibly my personal favorite on the album, traces the ups and downs of his friend’s career, as country star, songwriter, preacher, singer on the comeback trail, and hopeless alcoholic:

He laid it all aside to follow Jesus
For years he chose to let his music go
But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard
But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know?

Well, life began to twist its way around him
And I wondered how he carried such a load
He came back again to try his luck in music
And lost his wife and family on the road.

After that he seemed to fall down even deeper
And I saw what booze and pills could really do
And I wondered if I’d ever see him sober
But I forgot about a friend that Leonard knew

Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration
He helped teach me how to write a country song
And he even brought around a bag of groceries
Back before “Muskogee” came along

The acutely observed story song of ‘Make Up And Faded Blue Jeans’ finds the struggling singer-songwriter protagonist half-reluctantly hooking up with an equally desperate older woman. It was not a single, but is a well-remembered song which has been covered by, among others, Daryle Singletary.

Title track ‘Back To The Bar Rooms Again’, yet another classic on an album packed with them, was written by Haggard with Dave Kirby. It draws once more on the honky tonk atmosphere and downbeat mood, with a cuckolded husband returning to drinking, although this time whiskey is the “best friend” of choice.

In ‘I Don’t Want To Sober Up Tonight’, he refuses to pretend everything’s okay in a troubled marriage/life. His own marriage, to Leona Williams, was beginning to crack at the seams, but they co-wrote the cheerful ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ celebrating a love which sounds a little more like co-dependency. That fracturing relationship may also have prompted Haggard’s choice to cover Hank Williams Jr’s rather final ‘I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs’.

Dave Kirby (who was, ironically enough, to marry Leona Williams in 1983 after her marriage to Haggard finally collapsed) co-wrote the mellow and melodic ‘Ever Changing Woman’ with Curly Putman. Iain Sutherland’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go; has a similar vibe, but is more forgettable.

The wistfully melancholic ‘Our Paths My Never Cross’ about missed opportunities for potential true love has a lovely tune and a jazzy feel thanks to the brass in the mix.

The album is easy to find on CD at reasonable prices, and is well worth tracking down. The production has dated a bit, but the songs haven’t, and this is recommended listening.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘My Love Affair With Trains’ and ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

After over a decade on Capitol, 1976 saw Haggard calling a halt to his association with the label. He was still at his peak, and that year he was to release three albums, two of which are avilable on one CD reissue. One of these was his first thematic concept album (as opposed to his tributes to two of the musical heroes who had inspired him), My Love Affair With Trains. Haggard wanted to document his lifelong love of trains at a time when this important element of American history was being swept away, and to pay tribute to the men who had worked and lived on the railroads.

It opens with an acoustic snippet from ‘Mama Tried’ with its reference to his childhood dreams of trains, leading into the first of a series of spoken reminiscences and comments over a selection of genuine train and whistle sounds, which are interspersed with the songs. Proceedings open with the Dolly Parton-penned title track, a cheerful mid-tempo number with solid train rhythms which belies the generally elegiac mood. The subdued and melancholy ‘Union Station’, written by Ronnie Reno (the bluegrass singer and musician who was then a member of the Strangers) about a station threatened with demolition, exemplifies the overall tone.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the obvious personal resonance of the subject matter, only one song is a Haggard original. That self-penned song is the firmly autobiographical ‘No More Trains To Ride’, a catchy mid-tempo song, with somewhat wistful lyrics as Merle reflects on his father’s railroad career and the hoboes in a vanished world. Red Lane’s ‘The Coming And Going Of The Trains’ narrates the story of the railways over history by dipping into the lives of those affected. There is the arrival of the railroads, displacing the Native Americans, providing a lifeline for drought stricken farmers in Texas, giving hope to prisoners measuring time by counting off trains, and finally the regret of an engineer about to be pensioned off. Mark Yeary’s ‘I Won’t Give Up My Train’ is a first person story song about a railroad engineer who can’t bring himself to leave the travelling life even when it conflicts with his family responsibilities. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

This 1976 #1 hit was written by Tommy Collins, the singer who was to be immortalized in Haggard’s song ‘Leonard’:

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Branded Man’

Merle Haggard released two albums in 1967, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive in March and Branded Man in August. Both were produced by Ken Nelson and appear to have been recorded concurrently at Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood. Like his previous two LPs, the 1967 offerings broke with the day’s usual practice of building albums around one or two hit singles and cover versions of recent hits by other popular artists. Instead, Haggard’s albums consist primarily of original material written by the artist himself, occasionally co-written with Bonnie Owens, and a few select entries from other well-known songwriters including Tommy Collins, Hank Cochran and Liz and Casey Anderson.

The Andersons penned “The Fugitive” (also known as “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”), which had been released the previous December. It is noteworthy not only because it became Haggard’s first #1 hit, but also because it was his first convict record, a theme he would revisit many times over the next 40 years. Inspired by the popular television series “The Fugitive” doesn’t reveal whether the antagonist is guilty or wrongly accused, which contrasts with Haggard’s later prison songs, in which the narrator is usually guilty and remorseful. The version on the current CD is an alternate take but isn’t significantly different from the better-known hit version. Initially reluctant to discuss his past transgressions, Merle was persuaded by Johnny Cash to face the issue head on rather than giving the tabloids the opportunity to do so. “Life In Prison”, in which the protagonist concludes that a life sentence is perhaps worse than execution, is perhaps his earliest self-penned effort about life behind bars. Although “The Fugitive” was the only single released from this set, many of the album’s other cuts were possible contenders. “Someone Told My Story”, with Bonnie Owens’ prominent and familiar harmony vocals, is a particular favorite of mine, as is “My House of Memories.” There are two covers on the album — a remake of his own “Skid Row” which had been his Tally Records debut a few years earlier, and Jimmie Rodgers “My Rough and Rowdy Ways”, which is only one of three tracks on the album in which Merle did not have a hand in writing (the other two are “Mary’s Mine” and the title track. The original album closed with the spirited “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart”, which Merle wrote with Tommy Collins. The Buck Owens influence is readily apparent on this track. The current 2-for-1 release includes two bonus tracks: alternate tracks of “Life In Prison” and “Someone Told My Story”, which while nice to have, don’t add much value to the collection.

Branded Man, released five months after I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, is a stronger set than its predecessor. This time around Merle relied a little more on outside songwriters, with Tommy Collins contributing three entries, and co-writing a fourth with Merle. The great Hank Cochran wrote “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. But the highlights of this album are the two singles, both penned by Haggard. “I Threw Away The Rose”, which was perhaps inspired by the 1962 film The Days Of Wine And Roses, was Merle’s follow-up hit to “The Fugitive”. Peaking at #2 in Billboard, it just missed becoming his second #1 hit. Instead, that honor went to the next single, the album’s title track, which topped the chart in September 1967. The semi-autobiographical number deals with an ex-convict’s unsuccessful attempts to wipe the slate clean and get on with his life.

Though it was never released as a single, “Somewhere Between”, co-written with Bonnie Owens, is a well-known album cut that has been covered many times by artists such as Suzy Bogguss and Keith Whitley, and is on my short list of favorite Haggard tunes. Tommy Collins’ “Don’t Get Married” is the best of the non-Haggard penned tunes, but Merle’s cover of the classic “Long Black Limousine” is surprisingly pedestrian and the weakest cut on the album. The album closes with two bonus tracks: alternate versions of “I Threw Away The Rose” and “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. Both are quite different from the better-known versions. They sound as though they were recorded live in the studio, and I suspect that both are previously unreleased Tally recordings.

Because neither album was recorded in Nashville, many of the usual names are absent from the session musician credits, although the great Ralph Mooney plays steel guitar on both albums. Glen D. Hardin, who would later become well known through his association with Emmylou Harris, plays piano. Oh yeah, and some guy named Glen Campbell plays guitar.

This 2-for-1 release, available on CD and as a digital download, is excellent value and well worth adding to your collection.

Grades:

I’m A Lonesome Fugitive: A-
Branded Man: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

Haggard’s debut single was a cover of Bakersfield star Wynn Stewart’s ‘Sing A Sad Song’ which was released on independent West Coast label Tally. Although it crept into the top 20 on Billboard, Merle sounds as if he is trying too hard to copy Stewart vocally, breaking into an uncomfortable falsetto, and there is a very heavy handed string arrangement.

He followed that up with a song penned by another Bakersfield boy, Tommy Collins’s perky novelty story song ‘Sam Hill’, which is certainly memorable, but now sounds very dated, particularly the backing vocals, and it performed less well than its predecessor. On the flip side was the pained ballad ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’, which Haggard wrote with fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson. This is an excellent song, addressed to although the string section is overdone again.

The third and last single for Tally, the rueful ‘(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’, was the one which really kickstarted his career. The first of many genuine classics Haggard was to make hits, it is unusual in that it was not one of his own songs, but was written by fellow Californian Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn), to whom he had been introduced by Bonnie Owens. A Bakersfield bar room take on lost love, it was his first top 10 hit single and gave him the name of his backing band, the Strangers. Even though a competing version by the more established Roy Drusky may have cut into sales, it was a big enough success that it persuaded major label Capitol to buy out his Tally contract. Six Tally sides were packaged with newly recorded material in the same vein, produced by Ken Nelson, for Haggard’s debut album in 1965.

The malicious ‘I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can’ (a Haggard original) was his first single actually released on Capitol, although it failed to break into the top 40 on Billboard. It is an energetic, personality-infused response to “get even with womankind” by breaking the hearts of every girl he meets.

Typically, country albums in the 60s featured one or two singles, a lot of filler, and covers of other artists’ hits. Haggard was much more album-oriented, even at this early stage, writing five of the album’s dozen tracks, and there are other songs which could have been hit singles given the exposure.

I really like ‘Please Mr DJ’, a disconsolate plea for the radio to play a specific song for “someone who broke my heart today”. ‘If I Had Left It Up To You’ is another very good song with the protagonist regretting his earlier fighting for a doomed relationship, as if he had not done so,

It’d all be over now except the crying
I’d be used to spending all my nights alone

A couple of tracks are still filler, with overdone string-laden productions. The heartbreak ballad ‘You Don’t Even Try’ was written with Haggard’s friend (and Bonnie Owens’s then boyfriend) Fuzzy Owen, co-owner of Tally, while steel guitarist Ralph Mooney’s romantic and sophisticated sounding ‘Falling For You’ is not a patch on ‘Crazy Arms’.

A cover of Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is taken at a disconcertingly brisk, almost cheerful pace, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the set are rather better versions of another fine Liz Anderson song, the depressed ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’, and Jenny Lou Carson’s sad but pretty sounding lament for lost love ‘I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows’.

The West Coast based Academy of Country Music recognized this bright new star by naming him Best New Male Vocalist for 1965 and also gave him the Best Vocal Duo award for his duet album with Bonnie Owens. A year later he had advanced to the title of Best Male Vocalist. Haggard was definitely on the right track with his debut, but had not quite found his distinctive voice yet.

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Classic Rewind: Tommy Collins – ‘If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl’

Country Heritage Redux: Tommy Collins

An updated and expanded version of an article previously published by The 9513.

In the Spring of 1966, the local country music stations in Tidewater, Virginia (WCMS & WTID) were playing the sounds of Tommy Collins’ new single “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl.”

I whistled at pretty girl, on a corner downtown
She saw me when I winked my eye and then she turned around
She came and took me by the arm, I told her that I meant no harm
She said to me with a certain kind of scowl
If you don’t mean it then don’t whistle, if you can’t bite don’t growl

The song was released on Columbia, Tommy’s first release for them after more than a decade recording for Capitol. It appeared to be a career renaissance for Tommy, reaching #7 on the Billboard and Cashbox Country Charts, and his first real hit since 1955. Instead, it proved to be a last hurrah as he never again cracked the top forty as a performer, although a number of his songs continued to chart well for other performers.

Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the names that immediately come to mind when the term ‘Bakersfield Sound’ is mentioned, as should be expected given their staggering commercial success. While those are the two most prominent names, Tommy Collins and (slightly later) Wynn Stewart were at least as important to the development of the bright and tight electric guitar sound that came to dominate Bakersfield music.

Born Leonard Sipes on September 28, 1930, near Oklahoma City, OK, Tommy Collins was the first of the specifically Bakersfield artists to reach prominence, although there was an active California country music scene before his arrival. His second Capitol single “You Better Not Do That” reached No. 2 (for seven weeks) in 1954 and was the first of a string of six novelty hits that ran through the end of 1955. In contrast, Buck Owens was not to chart until 1959 and Merle Haggard did not chart until 1963.

Collins spent his entire childhood in Oklahoma, graduating from high school in 1948. After that he attended Edmond State Teachers college, recording his first singles for an independent label and working for radio station KLPR radio in Oklahoma City. While at KLPR he met and made friends with Wanda Jackson, who had her own show on the station. Collins served briefly in the military; after discharge, he and Wanda Jackson (and her family) moved to Bakersfield.

Wanda Jackson did not stay long before moving back to Oklahoma, but Collins made friends in the area, including Ferlin Husky (a/k/a Terry Preston and Simon Crum), with whom he roomed for a while. After recording some of Tommy’s songs, Husky convinced his label, Capitol, to sign Collins in June of 1953, at which time he adopted his stage name Tommy Collins. He immediately assembled a band featuring Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens on lead guitar. Following the success of “You Better Not Do That,” Collins recorded more novelties. “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” was the immediate follow-up, reaching No. 4, followed by “Untied” (No. 10) and “It Tickles” (No. 5). In October 1955, the double A-sided single “I Guess I’m Crazy” and “You Oughta See Pickles Now” charted both sides into the top twenty, but that marked the end as far as his sustained success as a recording artist as he became more religiously oriented. He would not chart again until 1964.

In 1957, he enrolled in the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister and did eventually become a pastor in 1959. While he continued to record for Capitol, including some novelties such “All of The Monkeys Ain’t in The Zoo,” his records received little promotion. His Capitol contract expired in 1960 and was not renewed.

In early 1963 Tommy decided he was not meant to be a minister. He headed back to Bakersfield, re-signed with Capitol and in 1964 he returned to the lower rungs of the charts with “I Can Do That,” a duet with his wife Wanda.

Collins then signed with Columbia in 1965 (apparently with an assist from friend Johnny Cash). After the aforementioned “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl,” he had a string of minor hit singles, none of which cracked the country Top 40. Plagued by personal problems, including a drinking problem, Collins muddled through this period touring, at times with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, usually opening the show for them. Both Owens and Haggard were artists who had recorded songs Tommy had written.

Tommy would not chart again after 1968 and from that point forward his importance to country music would be as a songwriter. In 1972 Haggard had a huge hit with “Carolyn,” and in 1981, Haggard again paid tribute to Collins with “Leonard”, which focused attention back on Collins for the first time in many years.

While all of Tommy’s success as a recording artist came with novelty songs, other artists had considerable success recording some of his more serious songs. Faron Young had a major hit with “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’),” reaching No. 2 for three weeks in 1955, and George Strait took the same song to No. 1 in 1988. Merle Haggard had hits with “The Roots of My Raising,” “Carolyn” and “Sam Hill.” Mel Tillis took “New Patches” near the top in 1980 and numerous other Tommy Collins songs can be found in various albums recorded by country singers of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Tommy Collins died March 14, 2000 at the age of sixty-nine.

Discography

Vinyl

Tommy Collins was not prolific as a recording artist–those who still honor vinyl can occasionally find his Capitol and Columbia albums online or in used record stores. They are all good, so if the album is in decent shape, don’t be afraid to purchase it. None of the Columbia material is available on CD.

CD

Several vendors including PureCountryMusic.com and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop have Tommy Collins material available.

The most exhaustive set available is the Bear Family box set Leonard which covers everything he recorded on Capitol and Columbia. Bear Family always does an excellent job, but these sets are expensive and they are overkill for all but the most diehard fan.

Probably the best single CD collection is titled The Capitol Collection. Released by Koch in 2005, it has 18 songs including all of his Capitol Hits. This collection is now out of print but may be located with some effort.

Tommy Collins/Singer, Songwriter, Comedian is on the Gusto label and includes material Tommy recorded for Starday after his major label days were over. Tommy re-recorded some of his hits for this label–they are okay but lack the sparkle of the originals.

The Best of Tommy Collins is available from Curb. Featuring songs culled from a pair of albums recorded for Tower Records (a Capitol subsidiary) in 1966 and 1968. While the title is misleading, the material is interesting. This CD sells for $5.99.

The British label Cherry Red Records recently released This Is Tommy Collins which is essentially a two-fer of the Capitol vinyl albums This Is Tommy Collins and Music County Style plus six bonus tracks from the religious album Light of The Lord. Although the juxtaposition of the religious material at the end of the disc is a bit incongruous, this is the best single disc collection currently available

The British Archive of County Music (BACM) issued a CD-R on Tommy Collins called Think It Over Boys. It covers 25 songs Tommy recorded from June 1953 to July 1956. This label specializes in the obscure and issues releases in CD-R format–you can order from them through several sources. They basically stick with music that has fallen out of copyright in the UK (50 years or older), but there doesn’t seem to be anything too obscure for them to issue–they feature US, Canadian, UK, Australian and New Zealand country music artists. BACM does not mass issue their high quality CD-Rs – they issue a small supply and then produce more as the demand warrants so you may have to wait a while for your order to be filled – but you will get it eventually.