As 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”.
2. 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 …
3. 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 …
5. 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.
9. 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.