My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

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

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Album Review: Clay McClinton – ‘Bitin’ At the Bit’

bitin at the bitLegendary blues rocker Delbert McClinton has had a number of connections with country music, particularly as a songwriter but also duetting with Tanya Tucker and touring with Willie Nelson.  His son Clay, based in Texas, recruited country songwriter and producer Gary Nicholson to produce his latest solo album, and while it is an eclectic album, it draws strongly on his country influences, with Tex-Mex, blues and jazz thrown in the mix.

Clay isn’t as distinctive a vocalist as his father, but his rough-edged voice works well on his material.  It has a naturally melancholy tinge which is at its most effective on the wearied waltz ‘A Woman That Can’t Be Explained’, which has a slightly ragged 70s outlaw country feel which is very attractive.  One of a number of Nicholson/McClinton collaborations, this is my favorite track.  The protagonist is as puzzled by his sweetheart’s many contradictions when they split as when they first get together.

The pair’s laid-back ‘Wildflowers’ admires free-spirited women in a more straightforward way.

The cheerful honky tonker ‘Beer Joint’ (co-written with dad Delbert, and featuring backing vocvals from 60s rocker Bruce Channel) is another favourite, in which the protagonist turns down an expenses-paid exotic trip in favour of a party at his local bar.

The rueful ‘Hydrated’ faces a hangover with witty resolve and the hair of the dog:

Everything I read says you need at least 8 glasses a day

So put a little more ice in your drink and you might get enough that way

I ain’t no nutritionist but let’s make one thing clear

There’s a whole lot of corn in alcohol and there’s a whole lot of water in beer

Drink plenty when you exercise

Drink plenty out in the sun

I get my electrolytes mixing Gatorade and rum

It was written by Clay and Nicholson with Tom Hambridge, as was the very different ‘Sound Of A Small Town’, a gently understated and beautifully detailed portrait of life in a rural community.  ‘Bound For Glory’ is a fine tribute to American folk pioneer Woody Guthrie.

‘Stories We Can Tell’ is a co-write with dad Delbert, and has the bluesy groove typical of the latter’s work.  A sultry cover of 60s pop hit ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ is in similar vein.  Bluesy mid-tempo love song ‘Nobody Knows My Baby’ is a bit dull.

Delbert helps out vocally on a sturdy version of his classic song ‘Victim Of Life’s Circumstances’.  a number of other covers are also included.  The country classic ‘Poison Love’ (a hit for Johnnie & Jack in 1951) gets an enjoyable Tex-Mex makeover with joyful fiddle and accordion work, which works really well.  ‘What A Little Love Can Do’, written by producer Nicholson with Stephen Bruton for the Crazy Heart soundtrack, is quite good

I was very pleasantly surprised by this album, particularly the quality of the songwriting.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – ‘Cool Country Favorites’

After 2003’s Country Music, the major label phase of Marty Stuart’s career ended.  He began to release music on his own Superlative label (initially in conjunction with Universal South),  and issued a pair of critically acclaimed concept albums, followed by a duets compilation and a live album recorded at the Ryman Auditorium.  2008’s Cool Country Favorites is a transition album that serves as a gateway to the traditional sounding music he is making today.

As the title suggests, Cool Country Favorites is a tribute to country music,  with bluegrass, rockabilly,  and traditional country all represented.  It contains a number of covers of country and folk standards,  Marty’s take on classics by Johnny Cash (“Big River”) and George Jones (“Old, Old House”), and some instrumentals such as “La Tingo Tango” (the theme song to Marty’s RFD-TV show) and “Buckaroo”.   He even takes a back seat on a couple of tracks and allows his Fabulous Superlatives to shine.  “The Apostle” Paul Martin sings the lead vocals on “Bluegrass Express” and Harry Stinson sings on a very nice bluegrass version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”.   “Carol Lee” sounds like a 1950s Chuck Berry tune, but it was actually written and performed by “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan.

A number of the songs on the album appear elsewhere in Stuart’s discography.  Both Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind” and “Sundown In Nashville” appeared on 2003’s Country Music.  The latter would be remade again for Marty’s current album.  “Truck Drivin’ Blues”,  on which Marty name-checks his wife Connie Smith, is one of only two Stuart-penned songs on the album.  It too was remade for his latest release.

The album’s two standout tracks are Marty’s rendition of the George Jones classic “Old, Old House”, and the hauntingly beautiful, stripped-down “Dark Bird”, which Marty wrote as a tribute to Johnny Cash.  It closes the album on a quiet, thoughtful, and beautiful note.

Unfortunately and surprisingly, Cool Country Favorites is difficult to find.  It is unavailable digitally and I was unable to find any new or used copies on Amazon.  As such, it is in danger of being forgotten.  If you do manage to locate a copy at a reasonable price, grab it.

Grade: A-

 

Album Review: Jason Boland & the Stragglers – ‘Rancho Alto’

Jason Boland is a singer-songwriter with a poet’s heart, and with his band the Stragglers, is one of the acts in the Texas Red Dirt movement most deeply rooted in country music. His latest album, released on APEX/Thirty Tigers, is not quite as strong as his last studio album, 2008’s Comal County Blue, but is still a good collection. Boland wrote almost all the material, and his songwriting is consistently impressive and substantial. The album was recorded in Austin with Lloyd Maines producing, although the artist’s work is clearly rooted in his home state of Oklahoma.

The best song here is the gripping ‘False Accuser’s Lament’, an intriguing reinterpretation of ‘Long Black Veil’ from the point of view of the witness who claimed the narrator of the original song was the killer. The tune is new, but there are enough lyrical nods to the Marijohn Wilkin/Danny Dill-penned country classic to make its origins obvious. Tormented nightly by guilt, he reveals that he was paid off (with ‘the price of a new plow’) by the banker husband of the woman who would have been the convicted man’s alibi. In this version he knew of his wife’s affair but couldn’t face it all coming out in public, effectively making the framed man’s sacrifice pointless. Our narrator admits bleakly,

Father please forgive me for I falsely testified
They had me swear upon the Bible and I lied

The pensive ‘Obsessed’ dwells on an intense but fated relationship. The almost-melancholy ‘Between 11 And 2’ shows us a pair of lost souls eventually finding one another in the dead hours of the night. Jason wrote it with Noah Jeffries, who also plays fiddle and mandolin. The same pair wrote ‘Pushing Luck’, a rockier number where a potentially interesting story of a resentful lawbreaker feels overwhelmed by too-heavy production, not helped by the relative lack of melody.

The waltz ‘Every Moment I’m Gone’ is a rather lovely declaration of love by an ageing rambler, perhaps a seafarer, for the one waiting at home, which has a very old folk feel to the lyrics. The atmospheric playing of pedal steel dominates on ‘Forever Together Again’ (written by Roger Ray, pedal steel and dobro player in the Stragglers), a warmhearted tribute to a cowboy bar room crowd.

‘Down Here In The Hole’ is a strong song about working in a coalmine with some memorable lines and prominent fiddle. I also like ‘Fences’ with its fiddle-led instrumentation and singing melody, and the brooding if sometimes obscure lyric lamenting, I think, the fate of Native Americans:

She was there for the taking, there were promises made
But smallpox and whiskey were a mighty bad trade

All I see now are fences
The cards turn a profit but the people are gone
Theses old holes in the highway are so brutal on bones
You don’t dance with who brought you, it’s a lonesome walk home

The attractive ‘Mary Ellen’s Greenhouse’ paints an affectionate picture about making music with old friends in a welcoming place, based on a rehearsal place of Boland’s youth.

There are a couple of external covers. Bob Childers wrote ‘Woody’s Road’, a tribute to Woody Guthrie, ‘a rambling friend of man’. Finally, The part-spoken ‘Farmer’s Luck’ (written by Greg Jacobs) is another real highlight. It tells the story of a government-funded reservoir in Oklahoma which drowns a farmer’s land in the 1960s, set to a jaunty rhythm as the narrator’s grandfather, a small farmer complains to the bureaucrats and businessmen,

Well, you don’t know nothing about farming
You don’t know nothing about soil
You live up there in Tulsa and make your living off of oil…

They’re gonna dam the Deep Fork River and damn the farmer’s luck

This is an interesting and worthwhile release by an excellent songwriter.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘I Am What I Am’

Too often in recent years, in both song and in interviews, Merle Haggard has come across as a grumpy old man who is often (and sometimes justifiably) frustrated with both the state of the nation and the music industry. His first album of all-new material in nearly five years finds him sounding less cynical and angry, less overtly political, more optimistic — and surprisingly refreshed. Incorporating a variety of sounds — from traditional country and Western swing to folk and Dixeland jazz — he doesn’t break any new ground or cover any territory that he hasn’t visited many times in the past, yet he sounds more connected to the music than he has on his past few releases. He wrote and produced all of the album’s songs, with Lou Bradley assisting as co-producer.

The Hag is joined once again by his always-stellar band The Strangers, sans Bonnie Owens who passed away in 2006 and whose presence is missed. Cast aside long ago by country radio, Merle makes no concessions to contemporary mainstream tastes. All of the tracks on I Am What I Am, Haggard’s first release for Vanguard Records, sound as though they could have been culled from his best albums of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His voice is showing some inevitable signs of wear and tear, but for the most part he is in good vocal form throughout the album, especially in light of the fact that he underwent surgery for lung cancer in late 2008.

The album opens with “I’ve Seen It Go Away”, a Woody Guthrie-style number with a “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” theme. He makes some social commentary, as he is often wont to do, though he makes his points more subtly here than he has in the past, taking gentle swipes at the country music establishment:

I’ve seen my share of good times come and go,
I’ve seen Bob Wills and Elvis, when they did a show.
When you’ve seen the very best, the rest can’t hardly play,
I’ve seen it, girls, and I’ve seen it go away

and America’s political leaders:

I’ve watched it all completely fall apart,
And I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s heart.
I’ve seen most of what we’ve got have a whole lot better day,
I’ve seen it, kids, and I’ve seen it go away.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of 1981’s “Rainbow Stew”, which is largely forgotten today, but it is an important song to me personally, since this is the song he had on the charts around the time that I became interested in country music.

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