Tag Archives: Country & Western

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers: The Centennial Collection

Mid-1930s transcriptions of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

To mark one-hundred years since the birth of Roy Rogers (November 5, 1911), Varese Sarabande’s put together a set of twenty-one early tracks by Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. Rogers, still performing under his birth name, Leonard Slye, formed the group in the early 1930s with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, and they quickly added fiddler (and bass vocalist) Hugh Farr. Before moving on to a film career as Roy Rogers in 1938, he and his fellow Pioneers became the model Western harmony singing group. These recordings are taken from transcriptions made in 1934 and 1935 for Standard, and include the group’s iconic “Cool Water” (with Rogers, unusually, on lead vocal) and several fine examples of Rogers’ yodeling. The collection ends with an early Rogers solo, “It’s Home Sweet Home to Me,” recorded shortly after his film career began. Laurence Zwisohn’s liners provide a quick sketch of Rogers career and a few notes on the recordings, and they’re supplemented by Cheryl Rogers-Barnett’s fond remembrance of her father. The packaging proclaims these as “never-before-released recordings,” but without detailed information (there are no dates or master numbers provided), it’s hard to be sure some or all haven’t appeared among Bear Family’s extensive box sets. What is for certain is the warmth and continuing vitality of these 67-year-old recordings, crisply transferred and restored by William Cook, Phil York and Steve Massie. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Sons of the Pioneers: Sing the Stephen Foster Songbook

Nineteenth century American songs sung in 1930s close harmony

It’s a mark of Stephen Foster’s seminal place in American culture that the two songs opening this collection, “Oh Susanna” and “De Camptown Races,” are known more as part of the musical landscape than a particular songwriter’s creation. But those two, along with “Old Black Joe” and “Swanee River” are indeed part of Foster’s catalog of American musical classics. “Oh Susanna” was his first commercially successful composition, and though written in Cincinnati, it became emblematic of the California gold rush of the mid-1800s. Within five years he’d written many of his most memorable songs. But in an era of limited copyright, Foster barely profited from his songwriting, and by the early 1860s he was living in poverty in New York City, finally passing away in 1864. But his songs lived on, burnishing his reputation as one of the first truly American songwriters.

The Sons of the Pioneers came together in 1933, at a time that Foster’s songs were gaining renewed recognition. Kentucky adopted “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1928, and Florida adopted “Old Folks at Home” (aka “Swanee River”) in 1935. Though the Sons of the Pioneers are more typically recognized for their close harmony Western songs, they included Foster’s works in their Americana songbook right from the start. The 1934 and 1935 performances collected here include lead vocals from all three of the group’s founding members, Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, as well as an instrumental version of “Swanee River” featuring fiddler Hugh Farr. The tracks from 1935 also include guitarist Karl Farr.

Foster’s occasional use of racial slang may have been acceptable in the 1850s or 1930s, but it will stick out to contemporary listeners. The performance of Foster’s songs by minstrel acts and the later repurposing of his lyrics by post-Reconstructionists further magnified the offense felt today; listeners may strain to take the dialect and epithets in the context of their times. These recordings are drawn from transcription recordings that the Sons of the Pioneers made for radio broadcast, and have not been widely available in the intervening decades. This is a treasure trove for fans of Stephen Foster as well as Sons of the Pioneers fans who want to hear their original harmony sounds. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Clint Eastwood: Cowboy Favorites

Clint Eastwood sings western songs on pleasant television tie-in

With so much incredible material in the Cameo-Parkway vault, most of which hasn’t seen  reissue in fifty years, one has to wonder why Collectors’ Choice decided to make this 1963 television tie-in one of the first C-P original album reissues. When originally issued, Eastwood had been starring in Rawhide since 1959, and though he’d become one of the most famous actors and directors of his generation, his singing career (which also included the 1969 film version of Paint Your Wagon and hit duets with Merle Haggard and T.G. Sheppard) remained mostly a sidelight. This album was the joint product of Eastwood’s background as a pianist and the early-60s penchant for cashing in on television popularity. Unlike the pop and rock records of Ricky Nelson, Shelley Fabares and others of the era, the 33-year-old Eastwood and his producers put together a set of western songs that played well to the actor’s voice. It was a good fit for the times, with Bonanza climbing to its mid-60s peak, and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” having dented the pop charts. Eastwood proves himself a passable crooner (rather than simply a television actor stepping out), and the unnamed New York band (which seems unlikely to have been the hard-charging Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway house combo) is sharp but bland – even Eastwood’s jazz background can’t move the band to swing Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose.” Collectors’ Choice’s CD reissue includes the album’s original dozen tracks, with Eastwood backed by an all-male chorus, and both sides of his pre-LP single, “Rowdy” and “Cowboy Wedding Song.” [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Gene Autry: South of the Border – The Songs of Old Mexico

The singing cowboy sings of Old Mexico

Varese continues to round-up the stray works of singing cowboy Gene Autry, giving grown-up buckaroos a convenient place to find ephemeral performances from film and radio. Their latest volume corrals twenty Mexico-themed tunes from Autry’s feature films and Melody Ranch radio show. Among the titles collected here are some of Autry’s most celebrated, including “Mexicali Rose,” and movie themes “South of the Border” and “Gaucho Serenade.” The material is mostly drawn from Autry’s prime in the 1940s, but reaches back to the late ‘30s for “Cielito Lindo” and “Come to the Fiesta” and to 1950 for “El Ranch Grande.” Digital mastering engineer Bob Fisher has sewn the disparate audio sources into a tremendously listenable program, and introductions by Autry and his radio announcer provide vintage frames for several tracks. The eight-page booklet includes new liner note by Western music historian O.J. Sikes and detailed information on each song’s source. This is a terrific companion to the numerous Western-themed Autry collections issued by Varese and others. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Gene Autry’s Home Page

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Volumes 1 & 2

RayCharles_ModernSounds12The genius of soul re-imagines the Nashville songbook

Originally released on ABC-Paramount in 1962, Modern Sounds in Country and Western, was a revelation, both for fans of country music and for fans of Ray Charles. The former had never heard their favorites orchestrated with the depth of soul brought to the table by Ray Charles, and fans of the genius singer had never before heard him indulging his love of country songwriting so deeply. Nashville had adapted to brass and strings in an attempt to create crossover hits, but their charts and players never swung with the sort of big band finesse and bravado of these arrangements, and their vocalists rarely found the grooves mined by Charles. The second volume, issued the same year, follows the same template, with Nashville standards rearranged and conducted by Gerald Wilson and Marty Paich, and recording split between New York and Hollywood.

Having been a country music fan since his youth, Charles evidently didn’t hear any line that would separate him from the Nashville songbook. His recording supervisor, Sid Feller, was tasked with gathering songs, and ABC, thinking the whole ideas was a lark, left the pair alone to follow Charles’ muse. The album spun off four hit singles, including a chart-topping remake of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and a heartbreaking cover of Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me” that fell just one rung shy of the top. Marty Paich’s strings brilliantly underline and shadow Charles’ vocals, adding atmosphere without ever intruding or overwhelming the singer or the song. Track after track, Charles, his arrangers and his band find wholly new ways through these songs, turning “Half as Much” into mid-tempo jazz, layering string flourishes into “Born to Lose,” laying the blues on “It Makes No Difference Now” and punching up “Bye Bye Love” and “Hey Good Lookin’” with big band sizzle.

Volume two may not have been as much of a surprise, but neither was it a second helping. Gerald Wilson’s soul vision of “You Are My Sunshine,” expertly rendered by Charles and a swinging horn section, leaves few traces of the song’s mid-20th century origin. Charles, spurred by backing vocals from the Raeletts, sounds like he’s reeling off a personal tale of devotion rather than singing someone else’s lyric. The Raeletts provide an edge to side one’s New York sessions, with the Jack Halloran Singers sitting in on side two’s Hollywood takes. Both album sides yielded hit singles, including a pained reading of “Take These Chains From My Heart,” and a slow, mournful take on “Your Cheating Heart.” As with the first volume, Charles finds a directness in country songwriting that matches the expression he developed with the blues.

Country music and Charles’ career each received a boost from these albums. Nashville expanded its audience outside its core region, Nashville songwriters found new ears for their songs, and Charles gained an influx of fans who might otherwise have never bought R&B records. These were all lasting marks, as Charles’ fame continued to expand, and country music gained new flavors for its crossover dreams. Concord’s reissue includes the two volumes’ original twenty-four tracks, full-panel cover art (front and back!), original liner notes for each, and new liners by Bill Dahl. Volume one previously appeared as a standalone CD in the 1980s, but the complete volume two only appeared on the (out-of-print) box set The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986. This single disc is the perfect way to get Charles’ 1962 country sessions in one sweet package. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Ray Charles: Genius- The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection

raycharles_geniusSingle-disc sampler of Charles on Atlantic and ABC

Songwriter, pianist and vocalist Ray Charles may be one of the most anthologized pop artists in history, with several hundred collections and repackagings issued on LP and CD. But even with so many facets of his career having been explored, there remain essential sides that have yet to see official digital reissue. Concord is kicking off an extensive redevelopment of Charles’ post-1960 catalogs on the ABC-Paramount and Tangerine labels with this 63-minute 21-track disc of career highlights, including ten R&B chart toppers and three pop #1s.

The set includes four tracks from Charles’ time on Atlantic, reaching back as early as 1955 for “I’ve Got a Woman.” The bulk of the set is drawn from 1960 through 1967, starting with Charles’ first pop chart topper, 1960’s “Georgia on My Mind,” and winding along to 1967’s “Here We Go Again” and “Yesterday.” The disc closes with Charles’ last single for ABC, 1976’s “America the Beautiful.” Throughout the twenty-one selections you can hear Charles’ develop his seminal brand of soul from roots in gospel, blues, R&B, and jazz. ABC freed Charles to explore more broadly than had Atlantic, bringing in Latin rhythms, singing the works of country and tin-pan alley songwriters, adding strings, and alternating between the sassy call-and-response of the Raelettes and a smooth backing chorus.

Concord’s digital remastering is crisp (mono for the Atlantic tracks 2, 6, 9, 17), and the non-chronological song sequence provides an excellent flow. The CD includes a 20-page booklet with liner and song notes by Don Heckman, photos, release and chart data, and an embossed cardboard wrapper. Few artists can boast as powerful a catalog as Charles, and though it’s overstatement to label any single disc an ultimate collection (there’s many times more essential sides missing than would fit), this is a welcome overture to the coming symphony of ABC/Tangerine reissues. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Various Artists: Boots, Buckles & Spurs

Fine collection of Country & Western for your saddle pack

In celebration of the National Finals Rodeo’s fiftieth anniversary, Sony BMG Nashville/Legacy’s gathered together fifty songs of cowboys, their Western lives and the frontier landscapes they roam. Spread across three discs are artists closely associated with cowboy music, including Gene Autry, The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, Red Steagall, Don Walser, Chris LeDoux, Don Edwards, Riders in the Sky, and Michael Martin Murphy, as well as dozens of country artists who reach back to a time before Country & Western split into two genres. Much like rodeo’s sometimes tenuous relationship to the working life of a cowboy, the characters depicted in these songs are often romanticized images of a cinematic West. That’s not particularly surprising given that most of these songs are songs about cowboys rather than by cowboys, written in retrospect decades after the closing of the frontier. Many served as nostalgic soundtracks to baby boomer films and television programs of the 1950s, and some as modern day odes from subsequent generations of misfits and outlaws.

Cowboy and western themes – independence, the fulfillment of work, tranquility and loneliness on the range, the human bond with horses, dangers on the trail, and the rough lives of nomadic societal misfits – have remained remarkably consistent across increasing distance from the mythologized source and seven decades of changing musical tastes. Circling back from Brooks & Dunn’s electric “Cowboy Town” to Gene Autry’s acoustic “Back in the Saddle Again” one finds little instrumental similarity, but the fresh air of hard work and personal freedom creates a link between them. The independence and orneriness of cowboys proved a natural draw for both the original outlaw movement and its revivals, with songs from Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, and Jessi Colter ranging from reflections of fellow travelers to hero worship.

The call of the West stretched beyond country artists to the Irish flutist James Galway, who waxed an early-80s cover of “The Wayward Wind” with vocalist Sylvia, and Canadian folk singer Ian Tyson, who recorded the traditional “Leavin’ Cheyenne.” Tyson’s original “Someday Soon,” memorably recorded by Judy Collins in 1969 is featured here in Suzy Bogguss’ superb 1991 hit cover. Most important to the survival of cowboy music over the decades is the enduring nostalgia for Western archetypes and the music itself, with missionary artists Don Walser, Don Edwards, and Riders in the Sky building careers expressly to keep old songs alive. Contemporary country artists borrow the nostalgia for an occasional remake, such as the Outlaws rock-reworking of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” or for an opportunistic pairing, such as Clint Black and Roy Rogers’ duet, “Hold on Partner.”

Though the bulk of this set is collected from the 1960s and 1970s, disc three is peppered with some some hard-charging modern country. As the program moves through tracks by Tracy Byrd, George Strait, Lonestar and Brooks & Dunn, it becomes evident that this collection is both a document of songs about the west and the soundtrack to modern-day rodeo events. Montgomery Gentry’s cover of “Wanted Dead or Alive” probably fires up the crowds, but as an historical document it harkens back more to Bon Jovi’s 1986 original than the Old West. Given the set’s dual identity, one can note that the omission of works by Tex Ritter and Jimmy Wakely (not to mention Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” though perhaps it was too ironic or simply not available for cross-licensing), but there are plenty of rodeo-themed songs here, including works from actual cowboys Rod Steagall and Chris LeDoux. In contrast to compilations that cover cowboy music as a cherished historical artifact, Legacy’s set shows the music still earning its daily keep at the rodeo. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]