Chuck Mead: Close to Home

July 8th, 2019

BR-549 singer-guitarist celebrates his roots in country and rock ‘n’ roll

With BR-549 on hiatus, Chuck Mead’s managed to keep himself quite busy. In addition to three solo albums, he’s provided musical direction for the stage hit Million Dollar Quartet and the CMT dramatic series Sun Records. The latter afforded the Kansas-native Nashville immigrant time in Memphis, which led to his recording this fourth solo album at Phillips Recording, the studio Sam Phillips built to replace the original Sun studio. Mead expands on the neo-traditional roots of BR-549 with a retro palette that takes in the tall historical tales of Johnny Horton, the honky-tonk pain of Hank Williams, the rock ‘n’ roll joy of Chuck Berry, and even late-50s ska. He extols the wonders of lifelong musical preoccupation in “The Man Who Shook the World,” and Rick Steff’s piano adds a strong Johnnie Johnson vibe to “Daddy Worked the Pole.” There’s Hank-styled melancholy in the resonator guitar and yodel of “Better Than I Was (When I Wasn’t So Good),” and the bar-themed “Tap Into Your Misery” is a drowning pool of sorrow. The album’s Memphis locale raises its swampy groove with the guitar reverb and organ of “Shake,” and the wide-ranging set closes with the optimistic of “There’s Love Where I Come From.” Mead’s a chameleon as he bounds across a wide range of musical touchstones, but his fluency turns these echoes into flavors, and the album into a celebration of roots. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Mead’s Home Page

Tom Brumley: Steelin’ the Show

June 29th, 2019

Instrumental highlights of the Buckaroos’ steel guitar ace

Alongside fellow Buckaroos, Don Rich, Doyle Holly and Willie Cantu, steel guitar ace Tom Brumley was a core part of Buck Owens’ “Bakersfield Sound.” Brumley first connected with Owens as a studio musician at Capitol in the early ‘60s, and joined the Buckaroos in 1963. He stayed with Owens’ throughout the group’s phenomenal commercial run in the 1960s, departing in 1969 to join Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band (that’s him on “Garden Party”). So successful were the Buckaroos in backing Owens that they developed a parallel recording career of their own, and the sides collected here – all instrumentals except the closer – are drawn from both Buck Owens albums, and those recorded separately by the Buckaroos. Brumley’s steel guitar shines on these instrumentals, but as the closing Buck Owens track “Together Again” shows, his instrumental support and solos with a megawatt star fronting the band resonated on a whole other level. This collection offers fans a generous helping of Brumley’s talent and style, including languorous ballads and hot-picked barn burners, and provides a nice complement to his work on Owens’ iconic hits. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Various: That’ll Flat Git It! Vol. 32

June 29th, 2019

Bear Family’s signature rockabilly anthology still rockin’ at 32!

At thirty-two volumes in twenty-eight years, one might wonder if Bear Family’s signature rockabilly anthology has run out of gas. But even on a fourth excursion into the vaults of Decca, Brunswick and Coral, Bear Family has unearthed many fine rock ‘n’ roll platters, and maintained their traditional attention to detail and presentation. The thirty-nine page booklet includes period photos, label reproductions, and knowledgeable liner notes by Bill Dahl. The thirty-three tracks clock in at over seventy-five minutes, and play like the collector’s jukebox Bear Family envisioned when they programmed 1992’s Volume 1. Best of all, the well of good material is still gushing with legends Johnny Burnette, Ronny Self, Brenda Lee, Bill Haley & His Comets, and Buddy Holly sharing the stage with superb acts known primarily to rockabilly aficionados.

Buddy Holly’s sides include a cover of the Clovers’ “Ting-a-Ling,” cut in Nashville in 1956, and the original “I’m Lookin’ For Someone to Love,” cut with Norman Petty in Clovis, NM. The former’s rockabilly treatment was resurrected by the Kingbees in 1980, while the latter’s terrific vocal and guitar solo was overshadowed in rock ‘n’ roll history by its A-side, “That’ll Be the Day.” Holly’s music has been so deeply canonized at this point, that hearing his records mixed into a rockabilly collection is a good opportunity to reset their connection to the musical times in which they developed. Johnny Burnette’s cover of “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” features Burnette’s unabashed vocal and Paul Burlison’s hard-twanging guitar, and Brenda Lee’s B-side “Little Jonah (Rock on Your Steel Guitar)” features the swinging steel of Buddy Emmons.

Ronnie Self found his greatest commercial success as a songwriter (penning “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothins” for Brenda Lee), while his recording career turned out classic rave-ups such as “Bop-A-Lena,” but no big hits. His self-penned debut on Decca included the twangy mid-tempo “Big Town” backed with the wilder flipside “This Must Be the Place.” Cut in Nashville, both sides feature A-listers Buddy Harman, Floyd Cramer and Hank Garland. Bill Haley and His Comets’ 1958 single “Lean Jean” was cut in the same New York City studio in which they’d arguably birthed rock ‘n’ roll four years earlier with “Rock Around the Clock.” At 33, and with rock ‘n’ roll having exploded in his wake, Haley seemed to be a step behind the times as this mid-tempo number doesn’t generate the unbridled excitement of the group’s earlier recordings, and limped on to the charts at #67.

That said, Haley’s co-written “Broke Down Baby” provided the Philadelphia-based Tyrones an opportunity to rock in show band style, suggesting that the early roots of rock ‘n’ roll weren’t entirely dead; but it does beg the question of how one even defines “rockabilly.” Hank Penny, a western swing star in the ‘30s and ‘40s, echoes Haley’s fading glory as “Rock of Gibraltar” sounds like something that would have been more at home in an early rocksploitation movie than a rockabilly hop. Joe Hudgins was a country artist and protege of Marty Robbins, and his original “Where’d You Stay Last Night” is as much R&B as it is rockabilly. Jimmy Duncan’s “Run Little Joey” includes a Latin rhythm and doo wop-styled bass vocal alongside a rock ‘n’ roll sax and guitar solo. Jack & Jim’s novelty “Tarzan and Jane” sounds like folk music with a primal beat (though Glenn Reeves’ “Tarzan,” also included on this set, manages to swing more freely), while the flip “Midnight Monster Hop” has more rock ‘n’ roll in its guitar and drums. The Brooklyn-based doo-wopping Bay Bops manage to stir up some real excitement with the jivey “Follow the Rock,” while Sandy Coker’s “Honky Tonk Freeze” sounds more like a cross between Chet Atkins and the tamer instrumentals that Larry Collins cut with Joe Maphis; it’s a tasty instrumental, but rockabilly?

The set opens with the Elvis-like strains of Lance Roberts, a singer who cut two singles for Decca before moving on to Sun. Roberts’ freewheeling “Gonna Have Myself a Ball” was written by the legendary Boudleaux Bryant and features a driving beat and plenty of twangy guitar. Elvis also cast his spell over Johnny Duffet’s dizzying minor key original “Just Give Me Your Heart,” Buddy Holly’s hiccups informed Arthur Osborne’s loose-stringed, “Don’t Give Me Heartaches,” and the Everly Brothers seem to have opened the door for the Los Angeles-based Barker Brothers’ “Well All Right… Friday Night.”

Among the set’s biggest surprises is Crickets drummer Jerry Allison, backed by bassist Joe Mauldin and the unmistakable guitar of Buddy Holly, covering Johnny O’Keefe’s “Wild One,” under the title “Real Wild Child” and the nom-de-disque “Ivan.” The Maine-bred Dodie Randall is wound up on “Man Hunt” and its flip “I Fell in Love Again,” both cut in Los Angeles with guitarist Barney Kessell and a talented, but unnamed pianist, and Johnny Bell’s “The Third Degree” hits the rockabilly trifecta of angst-filled lyrics, a hopped-up vocal and wild guitar playing. The 33 tracks fill the disc with over seventy-five minutes of original rock ‘n’ roll, documented in a 40-page booklet filled with photos, label reproductions and Bill Dahl’s informative liner notes. At 32 volumes, this series is still rocking like a teenager! [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos: The Complete Capitol Singles 1971-1975

June 4th, 2019

Buck Owens closes out his phenomenal first run on Capitol

After a pair of double-disc sets covering Owens’ trailblazing, chart topping singles of 1957-1966 and 1967-1970, Omnivore closes out the Bakersfield legend’s run on Capitol with this superb third volume. Owens’ early ‘70s singles didn’t repeat the commercial dominance of his 1960s output, but several still landed in the upper reaches of the charts (and at #1 with Bob and Faye Morris’ “Made in Japan”), and demonstrated continued creativity. The early ‘70s were a time of artistic exploration for Owens as he recorded in his then-newly built Bakersfield studio, produced himself, covered material from outside the country realm, and stretched out from his classic Telecaster-and-steel sound to incorporate pop, bluegrass and gospel. As this set attests, his declining chart fortunes were more a product of changing public tastes and industry trends than a slip in artistry.

Owens opened 1971 with a moving cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” featuring a solemn vocal, acoustic guitar and atmospheric backing harmonies that take the song to a different emotional place than Simon & Garfunkel’s original. He showed off his omnivorous musical appetite and sense of humor with a southern-funk take on Jimmy Driftwood’s “Battle of New Orleans” a transformation of Shel Silverstein’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” into the country-styled “On the Cover of the Music City News,” a loping bluegrass arrangement of Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” and an energetic version of the traditional “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” The latter two expanded the Buckaroos’ musical palette with the addition of Ronnie Jackson’s banjo.

The biggest hits in this five year span came from the pens of others, but Owens continued to write fresh material for himself. He cracked the Top 10 with “Great Expectations,” and the novelties “Big Game Hunter” and  “(It’s A) Monster’s Holiday,” and further down the chart he scored with the defeated “In the Palm of Your Hand,” the discontented “Arms Full of Empty,” the defiant “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More” and the happy-go-lucky “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie.” Owens clearly had fuel left in his songwriting tank, even if country radio and the listening public weren’t paying as close attention as they had the previous decade.

Owens’ songwriting prowess can also be heard in B-sides that include the Mexicali-tinged waltz “Black Texas Dirt” and the steel and fiddle heartbreak of “I Love You So Much It Hurts.” He picked up excellent material from Terry Clements, John English, Dennis Knutson, Robert John Jones and Buckaroos Jim Shaw, including “(I’m Goin’) Home,” “41st Street Lonely Hearts Club,” and his last Capitol single, “Country Singer’s Prayer.” With the 1974 death of Don Rich having deeply dented his enthusiasm for music making, his waning commercial success led him to a mutual parting of the ways with Capitol (who shelved his last album in the process). He signed with Warner Brothers for a pair of albums that garnered middling chart success before he slipped into a hiatus that lasted much of the 1980s.

Omnivore’s double disc set includes the A’s and B’s of all 21 singles that Owens released on Capitol from 1971 to 1975, both with the Buckaroos, and in duets with his son Buddy and his protege Susan Raye. The latter includes charting covers of the Browns’ “Looking Back to See” (with a twangy steel solo from Ralph Mooney) and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” and a re-recording of “The Good Old Days (Are Here Again),” a song that Owens had released as a Buckaroos-backed B-side just two months earlier. The 16-page booklet includes liner notes by Scott Bomar, photos, picture sleeve reproductions, and detailed release, chart and personnel data. This is a worthy capstone to Owens’ monumental career at Capitol, and an essential volume for fans of his music. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

John Denver: Leaving on a Jet Plane

May 18th, 2019

John Denver’s pre-superstar years as a pop folkie

Six years before John Denver catapulted to fame with 1971’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” he was a hard working folkie on the Los Angeles club scene. In 1965, when Chad Mitchell left his eponymous folk trio for a solo career, Denver survived the audition process to assume the group’s leadership. The new lineup issued a pair of studio albums and a live set on Mercury, and when the last original member, Mike Kobluk, left the group, Denver carried on with recent addition David Boise and the newly added Michael Johnson, as Denver, Boise & Johnson. The latter trio released only one single, Denver’s “Take Me to Tomorrow,” but recorded additional material, of which three previously unreleased selections are included here.

The Mitchell Trio’s legacy of humor is heard in the 1967 single “Like to Deal with Ladies as Sung in the Shower Accompanied by a Twenty-Seven Piece Band,” as well as a live performance of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” The latter, stretching to nearly eight minutes, finds Denver intertwining smart-aleck stage patter with an audience sing-along and the trio’s superb harmonizing. Denver’s early years found him writing several of his most beloved songs, including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” originally self-released in solo form as “Babe, I Hate To Go (Leaving On A Jet Plane).” The retitled song is offered here in both a poorly conceived, band-backed studio single, as well as a beautifully sung acoustic live performance from 1967.

Denver, Boise & Johnson’s single “Take Me to Tomorrow” is a terrific up-tempo original, while it’s B-side, “‘68 Nixon (This Year’s Model),” sung in barbershop harmony, carries on the satirical social criticism of the Mitchell Trio. The set includes three previously unreleased tracks from Denver, Boise and Johnson, including superb vocal arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Tom Paxton’s “Victoria Dines Alone,” and a 1968 take on Denver’s “Yellow Cat” that’s more sedate than the version recorded for Rhymes & Reasons. The disc closes with the unison singing and banjo of “If You Had Me in Shackles,” capping a set that highlights the folk roots that preceded Denver’s transformation into a “far out!” ‘70s superstar. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

John Denver’s Home Page

Roy Oribson: Unchained Melodies

May 18th, 2019

Second set of Orbison vocals set to new orchestral arrangements

After two volumes that set Elvis Presley’s voice to newly constructed instrumental backgrounds, producer Nick Patrick did the same for Roy Orbison with 2017’s A Love So Beautiful. In Orbison’s case, Patrick’s arrangers often found themselves reimagining existing string arrangements on the grand scale of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and here they do the same. With the original records as templates, the arrangements echo some of the existing percussion and melodic motifs, but with Orbison’s vocals as the guide (rather than, as in the case of Orbison’s original recordings, the vocals either being sung with or over the instrumental backings), the arrangements are more studied and constructed in their support.

As on the first volume, some tracks fare better than others, though here the song selection and Orbison’s original vocals are bigger variables. The arrangement for “Unchained Melody” seems to grow organically from Orbison’s vocal, while the strings of “Blue Bayou” fill in the space that gave the original its lonesome air. More recent material, such as the posthumously released “Heartbreak Radio” and “Careless Heart,” haven’t the hook of engrained familiarity to boost them up, and album tracks such as Orbison’s 1961 cover of “The Great Pretender,” weren’t among his greatest performances. That said, the mid-charting “Crawling Back,” low-charting “Walk On,” and the UK hit cover of the Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon to Know” are welcome rediscoveries.

While not as surprising as the first volume, nor as strong in song selection (particularly in its generous helping of material from the last stage of Orbison’s career), it’s still interesting to hear these songs reimagined (though it’s not clear anyone needed to reimagine “Heartbreak Radio” twice, including the album closing rendition with contemporary country artist Cam added as a duet vocalist). None of these reworked versions replace the originals, but if you’ve listened to those classics thousands of times, this gives you an opportunity to hear something new in the familiar. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

Johnny Shines: The Blues Came Falling Down – Live 1973

May 11th, 2019

A bluesman who’d retained the vitality of his youth

The music industry’s history is littered with talent that never managed to intersect popular acclaim, and such might have been the story of bluesman Johnny Shines, if not for a sideline as a photographer and a chance encounter with Howlin’ Wolf. Shines started gigging in the early ‘30s, and toured with Robert Johnson for several years, but recordings made for Columbia and Chess were consigned to the vault, and the few sides released on J.O.B. didn’t make a dent in the market. By the mid-50s Shines had withdrawn from performing and turned to the construction industry, but a sideline photographing Chicago club patrons put him in touch with Howlin’ Wolf, and in turn secured him a half-dozen tracks on Vanguard’s influential 1966 anthology, Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 3.

Upon its release, the Vanguard album sparked the renown that circumstance had denied Shines for two decades. He recorded albums for several independent labels and toured the international blues circuit to wide acclaim before a stroke in 1980 sidelined him for several years. This 1973 performance, professionally recorded in the acoustically friendly Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, finds Shines in peak form. His guitar playing is crisp, nimble and deeply informed by decades steeped in the blues. At 58, his voice was still strong and supple, showing no signs of age, and his touring experience shows in a powerful command of the stage.

The set combines original material with a few songs by Robert Johnson, with the latter’s “Sweet Home Chicago” igniting the audience’s hand clapping. Shines largely performs solo, though he’s joined by Leroy Jodie Pierson on second guitar for three selections. He casually tunes and strums while providing song introductions and philosophical thoughts, often easing himself seamlessly into a song. His guitar playing offers a master class in the blues, but his singing is equally impressive in its nuance and emotion. The torchy “You’re the One I Love” and troubled “Tell Me Mama” are particularly mesmerizing, with the latter highlighted by Shines’ slide playing. This is a vital performance by a performer thoroughly enjoying the recognition of his history and rediscovery. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Everly Brothers: Studio Outtakes

May 11th, 2019

Alternate takes from the Everly Brothers hit-making years on Cadence

Among early rock ‘n’ roll acts, the Everly Brothers’ catalog is one of the most thoroughly documented. In addition to album reissues and greatest hits collections on numerous labels, Bear Family has issued three omnibus box sets (Classic, covering the ‘50s, and The Price Of Fame and Chained To A Memory, covering their years on Warner Bros.), along with two themed compilations (Rock and The Ballads of the Everly Brothers), a two-disc reissue of the classic Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, and a one-disc “mini box” titled Studio Outtakes. That latter disc, featuring 36 illuminating alternate studio takes from the brothers’ Cadence-era sessions, including 26 that were not included on the Classic box set. Studio Outtakes fell out of print and is reissued here in a jewel case with a 34-page booklet that’s slimmed down from the original issue’s 64-pages.

Unlike the multi-disc Outtakes volumes on Johnny Cash, Billy Riley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Tillotson and Carl Perkins, or the grey market two-volume Cadence Sessions, the conciseness of this single disc doesn’t require slogging through the repetition of false starts, incomplete takes and a half-dozen alternates of the same title. The multi-disc outtakes sets make a nice addition to a collector’s archive, but this 79-minute single disc is the more musical experience, playing as a well-curated compilation of hits, B-sides and album tracks with the twist of alternate takes. The evolution heard in these alternate takes offer listeners a peek inside the Everly Brothers creative process, and for the most familiar songs, an opportunity to relive a bit of the experience of hearing them for the first time.

What’s truly impressive is how quickly, and seemingly easily, the Everlys struck up their brotherly chemistry in the studio. First takes of “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” “Bye, Bye Love,” “Claudette” and “Wake Up Little Susie” hadn’t always settled on the vocal lines or instrumental accompaniment that would turn the song into a hit, but you could hear the magic building, particularly in the brothers’ magnetic harmonies. The differences are often subtle changes in rhythm, harmony, tempo, accompaniment, instrumental balance or production effects, offering an aural lesson in the tweaks a producer and artist make as they search for a hit. For example, the softening of the vocal attitude between takes 1 and 5 of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” finds the song evolving into its dreamy final form, while tempo, lyric and key changes differentiate takes 3, 5 and 7 of “Poor Jenny.”

Rather than arranging the disc with multiple takes of the same song side-by-side, the producers have curated the track list for spinning from beginning to end. The mix of hits and lesser known sides plays like an album, with one song segueing thoughtfully into the next. The selection of material is complemented by the high quality of the original recordings, Jürgen Crasser’s mastering, Andrew Sandoval’s liner and song notes (along with quotes from Phil and Don Everly) from the set’s original 2005 issue, and numerous candid and promotional photos. As a behind-the-scenes look at the Everlys’ recording process, this set is hard to top; fans who want to dig deeper into the Everlys’ methods should also check out the songwriting demos featured on Varese Sarabande’s 36 Unreleased Recordings from the Late ‘50s and Early ‘60s. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Jimbo Mathus: Incinerator

May 9th, 2019

The healer lays hands on himself

The laying on of spiritual hands offered up on 2016’s Blue Healer is now turned inward, with a dramatic album that finds Mathus moving from guitar to piano, and enriching his musical brew with space. Space for the vocals and lyrics, and space for instrumental backings that aren’t exactly spare, but often stray from the thick gumbo of his earlier albums. He ranges easily and authoritatively through Americana, folk, country, R&B, rock and electric swamp, turning his lyrics inward to explore the underpinnings of his own artistic life. The songs often drift into being, as though Mathus is gathering his thoughts as he addresses the microphone; he’s relaxed, confident and intensely present as he reveals himself. There’s an immediacy in this approach that casts a new light on his earlier records, suggesting they may have been more of an outward manifestation of the internal truths he mines here.

Some of these personal revelations are delivered directly in the lyrics, but elsewhere, such as the title track, poetic images are rendered with expressive singing and backed by instrumentals that essay mood rather than narrative. The basic revelation of “Really Hurt Someone” is heightened by intense violin runs and vocal dynamics that suggest Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” The drifting piano and backing chorale of “Been Unravelling” add a meditative counterpoint to a palpably lonely vocal – as if Joe Cocker was fronting the Friends-era Beach Boys. Mathus turns to an R&B groove for “Sunk a Little Loa,” swampy electric blues for “Alligator Fish,” trad-jazz for the story song “Jack Told the Devil,” boozy C&W on “South of Laredo,” and tips his melodic hat to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on “Sunken Road.”

The album’s lyric sheet reveals how Mathus reduced his words to increase focus. The songs are typically three or four minutes in length, but with lyrics that may be only ten or twelve short lines. Instead of traditional verse/chorus, he lets emptiness have its say, highlighting what’s said by not saying too much. “Never Know Till It’s Gone” lays out its lament in eight lines, surrenders its sorrow and longing to an instrumental interlude, and repeats itself for good measure, and the closing cover of A.P. Carter’s “Give Me the Roses,” offers an insight illuminated so clearly as to belie its intellectual depth. The latter is emblematic of the album’s offer of deep, almost subconscious thoughts brought to the surface to be mulled over in the explicit light of day. This is a powerful new approach for Mathus, one that his fans will find both emotionally and intellectually captivating. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Gordon Lightfoot: The Complete Singles 1970-1980

May 8th, 2019

Thirty-four A’s and B’s from Lightfoot’s hit years on Reprise and Warner Brothers

Gordon Lightfoot wore many hats as a musician. Initially signed to United Artists in the 1960s, he subsequently arrived at Reprise as a songwriting album artist, where he spun off a series of hit singles that included “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and many others. His international commercial success cooled a bit after moving to Warner Brothers and releasing 1978’s Endless Wire, but he remained popular in his native Canada and on the concert circuit. Real Gone’s thirty-four track anthology collects Lightfoot’s singles from 1970’s “Me and Bobby McGee” through 1980’s “If You Need Me,” including several hard-to-find single edits and mono mixes, but leaving out the latter part of his run at Warner Brothers. Lightfoot’s music was typically grounded in singer-songwriter folk, but the productions variously add a backing band and singers, strings and even pedal steel, all without distracting from the emotional directness of his lyrics and vocals. With remastering by Mike Milchner at SonicVision, new liners by Richie Unterberger, and the pairings of A- and B-sides, this is an interesting alternative to a standard greatest hits package, and a treat for Lightfoot’s longtime fans. [©2019 Hyperbolium]