My Kind of Country

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Classic Review: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry’ (1981)

stars of the grand ole opryDuring the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s major labels trimmed their rosters, shedding veteran artists who were no longer cranking out the hits or generating decent album sales. Sometimes these veteran artists would find another major label deal but mostly these artists wound up on minor / independent labels. Even those artists who managed to find a major label deal found their stay at the new label to be a short one that lead to landing on a minor label (for example, Jimmy Dickens: Columbia > Decca > Gusto / Charlie Walker: Columbia > RCA > Plantation).

While on the minor / independent labels, most of the veteran artists recorded very little new material, usually producing an album or two of dreary remakes of their older hits with perhaps some covers of other big hits from artists (it is astounding how many artists issued albums listing songs such as “San Antonio Rose”, “There Goes My Everything” and “There Stands The Glass” among their greatest hits).
Most of these albums featured low budget production, thin sound, and were recorded with minimal numbers of disinterested musicians accompanying a bored vocalist singing songs sung literally thousands of times before.

First Generation Records was owned by Pete Drake (1932-1988), one of the great steel guitar players, and a musician who was not about to settle for the bored and tired performances described above. Producing the records himself, and often playing steel guitar on the recording sessions, Pete gathered a group of excellent musicians to play on his recording sessions. Rather than merely re-recording an artist’s older hits, Pete’s Stars of the Grand Ole Opry series generally featured five songs new to the artist (and often simply new songs) followed by five of the artist’s older hits but with a difference, that difference being energized singers and musicians. Among the artists featured on the series were Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard, Vic Willis, Stonewall Jackson, Billy Walker, Ernest Tubb, George Hamilton IV, Ray Pillow, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and Charlie Louvin. While all were decent to very good albums, the album with Stonewall Jackson is the standout among the series.

Prior to this album, Stonewall Jackson has not spent much time in the recording studios since his last new Columbia album was issued in 1971. There had been an album in 1976 for GRT (I think the tracks were leased from MGM, intended for a never released 1973 album) reprising his Columbia hits in the manner of most remake albums, plus a deplorable new song from Foster & Rice titled “Herman Schwartz”. There was a pair of 1979 albums for Little Darling with little to recommend them. One of the Little Darlin’ albums was remakes and the other was largely undistinguished new material, although two of the songs had clever song titles, “The Pint of No Return” and “The Alcohol of Fame”.

For Stonewall Jackson’s First Generation sessions, in addition to playing steel himself, Pete gathered up an all-star lineup of Nashville session men including Jimmy Capps, Billy Sanford, Pete Wade and Bill Hullett (guitar), Jimmy Crawford and John Hughey (steel), Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Bobby Emmons (piano), Tommy Williams (fiddle), Bob Moore and Randy Best (bass).

The album opens up with the Billy Joe Shaver composition “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”, a very recent hit for John Anderson (I think it is possible that Jackson’s version pre-dates Anderson’s recording, but I’m not certain); Billy Joe’s album also hit the streets in 1981. Whatever the timing, I feel that the Stonewall Jackson recording is the best recording I’ve ever heard of the song, far better than Billy Joe’s version and slightly better than John Anderson’s version. Stonewall sings the song with great enthusiasm as the lyric fits the ‘hardscrabble-pull up your own bootstraps’ upbringing of Stonewall’s youth:

Hey, I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue, pure, perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
At last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

R.J. Jones and M. Kosser wrote “Full Moon, Empty Pockets”, a song that several artists subsequently recorded. The song tells a tale of woe that many of us have encountered – time on our hands but no money.

Full moon empty pockets
Stone broke on a Saturday night
Full moon empty pockets
Won’t a lady treat a cowboy right

Next up is “There Are No Shortcuts (To Get Me Over You)”, a good heartbreak ballad that of the kind that Stonewall Jackson always tackled well. This is followed by a song from Ben Peters and Curly Putman, “Breaking Up Breakdown”, a song that I could see as a successful single had it been issued in 1966 rather than 1981. The song is an up-tempo barroom ballad in which the narrator asks for the band to keep playing that song about breaking up.

The last of the newer songs is ”Let The Sun Shine On The People” by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston. Frank Dycus, of course, wrote some of George Strait’s hits and Larry Kingston provided a number of songs to Johnny Bush and other singers.

At this point the nostalgia trip begins, but with an enthusiastic Stonewall Jackson leading the way on excellent new versions of some of his classic hits, starting off with his biggest hit (#1 Country / #4 Pop) “Waterloo”. For those familiar only with the ABBA hit of the same name, this song is a bit of a romp through history referencing Adam, Napoleon and Tom Dooley:

Now old Adam, was the first in history
With an apple, he was tempted and deceived
Just for spite, the devil made him take a bite
And that’s where old Adam met his Waterloo

Chorus
Waterloo, Waterloo
Where will you meet your Waterloo
Every puppy has his day and everybody has his day
Everybody has to meet his Waterloo

Waterloo was such a big hit that Homer & Jethro took the time to spoof it:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode the trail
Catching Outlaws and putting them in jail
But the Ranger shot Tonto for it seems
He found out what ‘kemosabe’ means

Perhaps Stonewall’s most enduring song, “Don’t Be Angry,” is up next. Written by Stonewall’s brother Wade Jackson, not only was it a big hit for Jackson, but Donna Fargo took the song to the top during the 1970s and the song has been covered by many artists and remains in the active repertoires of county bar bands across the USA.

Don’t be angry at me darling if I fail to understand
All your little whims and wishes all the time
Just remember that I’m dumb I guess like any foolish man
And my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine

Well, I recall the first time that I flirted with you dear
When I jokingly said come and be my bride
Now that time has turned the pages it’s the sweetest joke on earth
That I have you near forever by my side

Joe Babcock authored the next Stonewall Jackson classic “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”, which also was a major hit for pop crooner Pat Boone and has also been a favorite of the R&B crowd and many of the rock & roll crowd as well, including Elvis Presley and Johny Rivers

I was born in Macon Georgia
They kept my daddy over in Macon jail
He told me if you keep your hands clean
You won’t hear them bloodhounds on your trail

Well I fell in with bad companions
Robbed a man, oh up in Tennessee
They caught me way up in Nashville
They locked me up and threw away the key

Chorus
I washed my hands in muddy water
Washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
Tried to do what my daddy told me
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Next up is Bill Johnson’s “A Wound Time Can’t Erase”, a sad and tender ballad that was a big hit for Stonewall and later for Gene Watson.

The fifth and final Stonewall Jackson classic is the Melvin Endsley / Stonewall Jackson composition “Why I’m Walkin’”, a song Ricky Skaggs covered during the 1980s. Melvin Endsley was a disabled person who wrote several classic country songs including “Singling the Blues” and “Knee Deep In The Blues”. Some readers may remember an alternate title “Got My Angel On My Mind”, but however you label this ballad, it’s a good one.

I’ve got an angel on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’
There’s such an aching in this old heart, now I ain’t talkin’
The little hand that held mine tight, just waved goodbye tonite
I’ve got her sweet love on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’

This album is still readily available on CD, as are most of the other albums in the series. Unfortunately, Pete Drake began experiencing health problems in 1985 and passed away in 1988. I would like to have seen Pete issue new albums on the next generation of veteran artists released by the major labels. It would have been much better music than much of what was actually released by other minor/ independent labels over the next decade. Anyway, almost unique among this class of minor label albums by veteran artists, this album rates a solid A, the first album for Stonewall in many years that I would rate that highly.

Country Heritage: Stonewall Jackson (1932- )

Never a country music superstar, Stonewall Jackson is the kind of “Joe Lunch Bucket” journeyman performer that hit the road for decades, always performing good country music, always keeping to what he did best and never disappointing an audience. He never had any delusions about his crossover potential, and when such an opportunity actually presented itself in 1959 on the heels of “Waterloo”, he made no effort to turn his career in a pop direction.

Stonewall Jackson’s back story is an unusual one for a singer in that he submitted a demo tape to Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose publishing, and Wesley landed Stonewall slot on the Grand Ole Opry before he even had a landed a recording contract. Something about Stonewall’s sincerity and rural phrasing appealed to Wesley and to Ernest Tubb, who took Stonewall on the road with him. Before long, he was signed to Columbia Records, where he would remain until 1972.

The first single out of the box, 1958’s “Don’t Be Angry”, written by Stonewall’s brother Wade, failed to chart but impressed a lot of people. The next single, the George Jones-penned “Life To Go” reached #2 in early 1959. Then came “Waterloo”. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a period in which historical and quasi-historical songs were in vogue. Songs such as “Battle of New Orleans”, “Sink The Bismarck”, “Ten Thousand Drums” , “P.T. 109” and “Johnny Reb” were all hits, along with rather lengthy story songs, the best remembered of which was “El Paso”.

Released in June 1959, “Waterloo” , debuted at #9, moved up to #5, spent five weeks at #2, then moved into the top spot where it stayed for five weeks before sliding to #2, then #3, #4 and #5. Eighteen of its nineteen chart weeks were spent in the top ten. The flip side, “Smoke Along The Tracks”, reached #24 (Dwight Yoakam had a nice recording of the song years later), and “Waterloo” itself reached #4 on Billboard’s Pop Charts. It also charted on the British pop charts.

Hot on the heels of “Waterloo”, Columbia issued the first Stonewall Jackson album The Dynamic Stonewall Jackson, an album which featured five chart singles – his first three chart hits, plus two singles drawn from the album in “Why I’m Walkin’ “ and “Mary Don’t You Weep” . Although currently out of print, Columbia has kept it in print (occasionally under a different title) for much of the last fifty years.

Stonewall Jackson probably came along at the wrong time for he never lost that hard country edge or his rural Georgia accent, so as time wore on and the “Nashville Sound” came to dominate country music, his music became out of synch with what was happening in Nashville. He continued charting until 1973, and with the right song, he could still have the occasional big hit, but never had more than two consecutive top ten records. Between 1958 and 1973 Stonewall Jackson charted forty-four times. There were two #1 records in “Waterloo” and 1963’s “B.J. The D.J.”, nine more that reached the top ten including a re-release of “Don’t Be Angry” in 1964 that reached #4.

The prime of Stonewall Jackson’s career was 1958-1965. During this period 1965 Stonewall recorded a number of classic singles in addition to those previously mentioned. “A Wound Time Can’t Erase” reached #3 in 1962 and has been covered many times. “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” reached #8 in 1967, and became a top twenty pop hit the next year for Johnny Rivers.

After 1965 Stonewall charted nineteen records but only two made the top ten “(Help) Stamp Out Loneliness” which reached #5 in 1967 (the duo of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood covered the song for the pop market) and his cover of Lobo’s “You and Me and A Dog Named Boo” which reached #7 in 1971, after a drought in which eleven straight singles failed to get as high as #15, four of them not even cracking the top forty. Stonewall reportedly was opposed to recording Lobo’s song and parted ways with Columbia after three more singles, none of which reached the top fifty.

Signed to MGM, Stonewall made his last chart appearance with the single “Herman Schwartz” which reached #41 in autumn of 1973. The tracks, which included remakes of some of his earlier hits, were leased to other labels and have been reissued over the years. GRT released an album of these tracks in 1976.

After 1973 there would be no further major label recordings from Stonewall Jackson other than reissues. An album released as part of Pete Drake’s First Generation label series Stars of the Grand Ole Opry featured an excellent recording of “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” that was as good as (or better than) any other version of the song. Jackson landed with a revived Little Darlin’ label in 1979, where two albums were issued that were a mixed bag of remakes and new material. Although he had no hits, songs such as “The Alcohol of Fame” and “The Pint of No Return” represented honky-tonk music in its purest form.

After 1980 Stonewall Jackson recorded rarely, although he continues to perform occasionally. He was involved in some litigation over the Opry’s non-use of its veteran talent, litigation which was recently settled and finds him back performing occasionally on the Opry.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL
All vinyl is, of course, out of print. Columbia issued seventeen albums, including three hit collections and a live recording recorded on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. There were also three budget reissues on the Harmony label. Stonewall never gave in to pop trends, so his albums will appeal to those who love traditional country music. Two especially noteworthy albums are The Great Old Songs (1968), a collection of songs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and A Tribute To Hank Williams (1969).

Stonewall also never gave in to any pressures to be politically correct so you will find among his albums songs with titles such as “Knock Off Your Naggin’ “, “Blues Plus Booze (Means I Lose)” and “The Minute Men (Are Turning In Their Graves)”.

After leaving Columbia in 1972, Stonewall issued some tracks for major label album on MGM (which have been reissued on various reissue labels). After that it has been minor labels where he mostly re-recorded old hits with long gaps between recordings and an eventual descent into an undeserved obscurity.

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available nine titles. The crown jewel, of course is the four disc Bear Family set Waterloo that covers roughly the first 70% of Stonewall’s career (through 1967) on Columbia, including most of the biggest hits. There are several discs of Columbia material, and the recordings for MGM, First Generation and Little Darlin’ are actually currently in print, sometimes on mish-mash anthologies or as stand-alone collections.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop actually released the last CD of new recordings made by Jackson. Released around 2000, but recorded over a period of about a decade Stonewall Jackson And Friends: A Tribute features sixteen of Stonewall’s biggest hits, some religious tunes, and about fifty guest artists ranging from old-timers like Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones and Mac Wiseman, to newer artists such as Alison Krauss, Joe Diffie, Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks. The recording of “Waterloo” features Stonewall singing with Garth Brooks, Larry Gatlin and Joe Diffie, with seemingly a cast of thousands on the chorus (actually 26 different acts make up the chorus). It’s not quintessential Stonewall Jackson, but I love the disc anyway

BOOK
Stonewall Jackson had a rather rough and abusive upbringing, which he details in his short and long out-of-print autobiography From The Bottom Up. Released in 1991, it is only 134 pages long and really doesn’t deal with his career much. It is a good and inspiring story, if you can find a copy