Posts Tagged ‘Country’

Various Artists: The Bakersfield Sound

Friday, November 15th, 2019

Awe-inspiring anthological history of the Bakersfield scene

Bear Family is well-known to collectors for the imagination and thoroughness of their box sets. Their cataloging of American country music in artist-based collections is unparalleled in its detail. But even against that high bar of quality, this set is something else, as it draws a comprehensive picture of a scene, rather than a more easily defined artist or label catalog. To assemble this set, producer Scott B. Bomar needed to develop a deep understanding of the history, connections and influences that forged the Bakersfield Sound over thirty-five years. They needed to identify artists, producers, engineers, studios, labels, clubs, radio and television stations, and records, and they needed to dig deep beneath the commercial surface, to find the rare materials that spurred and cross-pollinated artistic advances. The results are ten discs, nearly 300 tracks, and 224 pages that demonstrate how the scene developed, how lesser-known players contributed to those who would become stars, and how the stars themselves grew from their roots. It’s an astounding achievement, even on the Bear Family scale.

Situated at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield is a commercial hub for both the Central Valley’s agriculture and the surrounding area’s petroleum and natural gas production. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drove many Texans, Oklahomans, Arkansans and Missourians west, with many migrants resettling into agricultural and oil work. The Owens family moved from Texas to Arizona in the late ‘30s, and Buck Owens eventually settled in Bakersfield in 1951. The Haggard family moved from Oklahoma to California in the mid-30s, where Merle Haggard was born (in Oildale) in 1937. Bakersfield became both a physical confluence of refugees from the Plains states, and an artistic melting pot of their musical tastes; a place and time in which influences could combine and grow into something new.

As Bomar notes in his liners, Bakersfield was really more of an aesthetic than a singular sound. The range of artists ascribed to Bakersfield (including some who never actually lived or recorded there) are as varied as the influences that shaped the city’s music. As Joe Maphis chronicled, Bakersfield’s honky-tonks – including the Blackboard, Trouts, Lucky Spot, Tex’s Barrel House, and the Clover Club – were genuine dens of dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music, and as Nashville softened its approach in the 1950s, Bakersfield hardened its own. As Nashville toned down the twang and added strings and backing choruses, Bakersfield plugged in electric guitars to complement the fiddle and steel. As Nashville sweetened the arrangements and slowed the tempos for crooners, Bakersfield picked up the beat and highlighted vocalists singing harder-edged lyrics. Bakersfield wasn’t necessarily reacting to Nashville’s changes, but acting outside its commercial forcefield.

Owens’ and Haggard’s legends are rooted in Bakersfield’s honky-tonks, where they developed and honed their particular brands of music alongside the many foundational acts documented here. Bear Family has cast a wide net to haul in field recordings, radio and television broadcasts, live sessions, vault finds, vanity recordings, alternate takes, demos, rare local singles, B-sides, album tracks, and a selection of hits, to tell the story of Bakersfield’s development, rather than recite the well-known riches at the end of the creative rainbow. The set begins with early ‘40s field recordings gathered in the Central Valley migrant work camps that were run by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The rustic vocal, guitar and banjo music of the camps’ residents was as important a cultural touchstone as were the physical wares they’d packed into the trucks and beat-up cars that carried them west, and its mix of influences the roots of the Bakersfield music scene.

The set moves to 1944 with a fiddle-heavy cover of Fred Rose’s “Home in San Antone,” and establishes radio’s role in expanding local musicians’ regional reach with transcriptions from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Elwin Cross & The Arizona Wranglers. The latter group, whose “Back in Dear Old Oklahoma” strikes a nostalgic, homesick note, included Bill Woods, who would soon become a pillar of the Bakersfield scene as a bandleader at the Blackboard. From these earliest days of the Bakersfield scene, the upbeat tempos of swing and boogie drove many of the original songs, with twangy steel, guitar and fiddle prominently featured throughout. Billy Mize is heard on 1949’s “Got a Chance With You” and Roy Nichols’ influential guitar playing on 1950’s “Baby Blues.”

Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson – both key elements of Bakersfield’s commercial success – enter the collection with Ferlin Husky’s 1951 single “I Want You So,” recorded under the stage name of Terry Preston. Buck Owens first turns up at Capitol as a studio picker on Tommy Collins’ “You Better Not Do That,” and Capitol’s Hollywood studio was the site of Bakersfield’s first national hit with Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s “A Dear John Letter.” The song had been recorded twice before on local Bakersfield labels Grande and Kord, which along with Mar-Vel and others featured early performances by Bakersfield figures Bill Woods (who was so important to building the Bakersfield scene, that Red Simpson released a tribute to him in 1973), Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Billy Mize and Bonnie Owens. Many of the records most deeply associated with Bakersfield were actually recorded in Los Angeles, including the Blackboard Club-inspired honky-tonk of Joe Maphis & Rose Lee’s 1953 “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music).”

The early songs of home and homesickness quickly gave way to songs of romantic infatuation, love and recrimination, often with a forwardness that was disappearing from Nashville’s productions. The Farmer Boys’ “It Pays to Advertise” is surprisingly direct with the romantic boast, “when it comes to making love, I don’t leave girl neglected,” and Billy Mize’s “Who Will Buy the Wine” is scathing in its appraisal of a wayward spouse’s downfall. By 1956, rock ‘n’ roll was influencing Bakersfield’s players as Wanda Jackson’s “I Gotta Know” features a tug of war between upbeat rockabilly verses and a slow country chorus, Dusty Payne & The Rhythm Rocker’s “I Want You” has a rockabilly backbeat, Sid Silver’s “Bumble Rumble” offers up countrified skiffle, the bluesy guitar of Johnny Taylor’s “Sad Sad Saturday Night” is backed by Bill Woods’ piano triplets, and Buck Owens’ jangly guitar adds flair to Bill Woods’ “Ask Me No Questions.”

Buck Owens’ first session for Capitol as a leader included the bouncy 1957 single “Come Back to Me,” and his charting single, “Second Fiddle,” is also included early in the set. Owens quickly became a monumental presence in the Bakersfield scene as he dominated the country charts throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Owens had one or more Top 10 singles every year from 1959 until 1974 (including fourteen straight #1s from 1963 to 1967), with 1974 marking the death of Don Rich, and not coincidentally the year that ends this set. Owens’ catalog is detailed elsewhere, including three Bear Family box sets [1 2 3], and so the producer has cherry-picked sides that demonstrate Owens’ evolution as a singer, songwriter, producer and live performer, including the classic Buckaroos’ lineup first session on 1964’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” The Buckaroos were such a prolific, powerhouse group that they had a parallel career without Owens out front, represented here by selections fronted by Don Rich and Doyle Holly, the instrumental “Chicken Pickin’,” and sides backing artists who recorded at Buck Owens’ Bakersfield studio. The latter includes a track from Arlo Guthrie’s 1973 album Last Of The Brooklyn Cowboys, and Don Rich’s last session, backing Tony Booth’s “A Different Kind of Sad.”

Wynn Stewart also recorded for Capitol, but it was at Challenge and its subsidiary Jackpot that he waxed the singles most associated with the Bakersfield sound. Included here is his superb 1960 take on the Bakersfield club favorite “Playboy,” but his hits – 1958’s “Come On,” 1959’s “Wishful Thinking” and “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love),” and 1961’s “Big Big Love” – showed off an artistic range emblematic of Bakersfield’s many influences and musically adventurous spirit. Though not as commercially successful as Owens or Haggard, Stewart was highly influential, and he left behind a rich catalog (documented in full on Bear Family’s box set Wishful Thinking) that’s worth its own investment.

Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention and jail as the city’s music scene developed, but a late-50s stretch in San Quentin renewed his interest in a music career in which he’d previously dabbled, and upon his release in 1960 he began performing and subsequently recording for Tally. Like Owens, Haggard was both an artistic and commercial force. Though born in California, his autobiographical songs were rife with the hardship of Dustbowl refugees, and the struggles of outsiders. He first appears on this set as a songwriter and bassist for Johnny Barnett’s 1963 Tally single “Second Fiddle,” and he debuted on Tally’s next single with “Singin’ My Heart Out” and its flip, “Skid Row.” Haggard’s early Tally releases also included themed song, “Life in Prison,” as well as his first duet with Bonnie Owens, “Slowly But Surely.” Haggard’s transition from Tally to Capitol was meant to be heard in two versions of “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart” (one recorded for Tally, one recorded for Capitol) but the earlier unreleased Tally version ran into legal issues, and though described in the book, has been elided from the disc. A well-curated selection of his Capitol sides threads through the remainder of the set, and shows off both his commercial and artistic reach.

Owens and Haggard may have garnered the bulk of the scene’s commercial success, but the sheer volume of Bakersfield-related material that’s been collected here is astonishing. The Hollywood-based Capitol (and its Tower subsidiary) had the lion’s share of major-label Bakersfield success, but Columbia and RCA made inroads with Billy Mize, Liz Anderson, Tommy Collins, and others. Even more impressive is the wealth of local indie singles that paint a full color picture of Bakersfield’s deep pool of singers, songwriters and instrumental talent. Bakersfield essentially fielded a country version of the Wrecking Crew with a core group of musicians that formed and reformed in various aggregations to back singers in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. There are too many ace musicians in the crew to name them, but among them, only one regular female presence in Helen “Peaches” Price, a much sought-after drummer who played with Wynn Stewart, and backed Merle Haggard on several of his classic albums and singles.

Gary S. Paxton appears as an artist on 1966’s “Goin’ Through the Motions,” but makes his mark as a producer, both in Los Angeles, and for a time in 1967-68, in Bakersfield. His productions include the Gosdin Brothers country hit “Hangin’ On,” and a variety of singles that includes Leon Copeland’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “I’m Out of My Mind,” the Sandland Brothers’ tight duet “Vaccination for the Blues,” and the sly instrumental “Buckshot” by Larry Daniels and the Buckshots. Many of Paxton’s productions featured the inimitable guitar playing of Clarence White, including White’s unissued-at-the-time cover of “Buckaroo.” Paxton’s stay in Bakersfield wasn’t long, but he was productive, and cut records with Suzi Arden, Dean Sanford, Larry Daniels, Stan Farlow and others.

Each of the ten discs reveals surprises, including Barbara Mandrell’s 1966 single “Queen for a Day,” released three years before she signed with Columbia, the Marksmen’s 1961 guitar instrumental “Scratch,” recorded in Seattle by Gene Moles with the Ventures’ Nokie Edwards on bass, Roy Nichols’ virtuoso version of “Silver Bells,” songwriter Fern Foley’s original version of “Apartment #9,” Harold Cox & The Sooners’ “Pumpkin Center” offering some iffy rhymes in celebration of a local weekly dance, Herb Henson’s Trading Post TV show theme song, “You’al Come,” and songwriter Homer Joy’s original recording of “Streets of Bakersfield.”

The set’s final disc include live tracks, songwriter demos and work tapes from many of Bakersfield’s mainstays. The disc opens with hot live material from Buck Owens’ 1973 Toys for Tots show, featuring Owens, Buddy Alan, Tony Booth, Susan Raye, and the Buckaroos. There’s a treasure trove of songwriter demos and alternate takes from Bonnie Owens, Vancie Flowers & Rita Lane, Billy Mize, Red Simpson, Bill Woods, Tommy Collins, and Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, providing a behind-the-scenes look at how the first nine discs came to be. The disc closes with eight tracks drawn from television and radio broadcasts, giving listeners a feel for a world before records came to dominate media, and consultants came to homogenize playlists. Sadly missing from disc ten are five Merle Haggard alternate takes and a live radio broadcast that were last minute, contractual-dispute scratches.

As overwhelming as is the typical Bear Family box set, the breadth and depth of this anthology is doubly so. The panoramic view of Bakersfield’s music includes folk, bluegrass, country (and western), boogie, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, swing and more. Each disc provides a terrific program of music, and the arc from disc one to disc ten is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The accompanying 224-page hardbound book (weighing in at nearly four pounds) is as detailed as the music program, with historical notes, artist biographies, and song notes, and hundreds of photos and record labels. With 298 songs and a running time of more than twelve hours, this is a set to live with, rather than just listen to, and one you’ll be drawn back to over and over as you gain a feel for thirty-five years of Bakersfield’s musical history. No doubt this will be on many country music fans’ holiday gift lists, and by all rights it should be on Grammy’s list too. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Chip & Tony Kinman: Sounds Like Music

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

The musical adventures of punk icons and cowpunk reactionaries

Chip and Tony Kinman’s first band, the Dils, offered political anthems that resonated with the late-70s punk rock scene of their adopted San Francisco. A move to Los Angeles found the brothers increasingly disaffected from the growing aggressiveness of punk, and after settling into Austin, they developed the singular mix of pop punk, new wave and country that was Rank and File. Where the Dils had adopted the requisite punk sounds and styles of their times, Rank and File sounded like nothing else then extant. There was a maverick quality that was mindful of earlier country-rock pioneers, but ever the rebels, the band evolved into power chords and a more heavily produced drum sound by their third and final album. The brothers next formed the industrial techno-based Blackbird, mixing guitars and electronica (and a reworking of the Dils “Class War”) for a run of three albums. Then, just as everyone’s memories of Rank and File began to fade, the Kinmans returned to Americana with the campfire-ready western songs of Cowboy Nation.

In the wake of Tony Kinman’s passing last year, his brother Chip assembled this collection of twenty-two previously unreleased tracks from their archives. The revelation of this collection is the fluidity of the duo’s musical identities, with the pair often changing bands before they fully consecrated a new direction. What was rendered in public releases as discrete groups is shown here to be more of a continuum, as a 1978 take of “Rank and File” shows off the song’s punk rock genesis, and the arch vocal tone of the Dils threads into the Blackbirds’ buzzy “Me Too.” There’s a brawny riff hefted from “Louie, Louie” into “Candy,” Beach Boys sunshine buried in the muddy “She’s Real Gone,” noisy wistfulness in a modern arrangement of “Old Paint,” and delicacy and tenderness in a cover of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl.” As a collection, the material highlights the borderless world in which the Kinman’s made music, and for fans of their many-flavored bands, this provides a bittersweet reminder of their ever-changing sounds and restless musical souls. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Hank Williams: The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

Essential, remastered 1949 radio transcriptions

For a star of Hank Williams’ magnitude, it’s surprising that these October 1949 radio transcriptions have had a life as rough as his own. First released by MGM in the early ‘60s in bits and pieces, the transcriptions were subjected to overdubbed applause intended to turn the studio recordings into live sets. Polygram’s 1993 reissue, Health & Happiness Shows, stripped away the manipulations, but evidenced physical problems with the transcriptions, and Time-Life’s 2011 reissue, The Legend Begins, repaired many of the transcription issues, while offering a remastering that some listeners found too heavy on the high end. This latest version features new transcriptions and remastering by Michael Graves, alongside liner notes by Colin Escott.

As with the two previous releases, this set includes the eight shows that Williams recorded on two successive Sunday’s at WSM-AM’s Nashville studio. Each show stretched to fifteen minutes when augmented by ad copy read by a local announcer, and here they clock in a few minutes shorter. Williams opens each show with the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” and fiddler Jerry Rivers closes each episode with the instrumental “Sally Goodin.” In between Williams sings some of his best-loved early hits, original songs and gospel numbers, and much like the later performances gathered on The Complete Mothers’ Best Recordings… Plus! (or its musical-excerpt version, The Unreleased Recordings), the spontaneity and freshness of the live takes often outshine the better-known studio versions.

Williams had a few hits in 1947 and 1948, but 1949 was the year his career really took off. Moving from Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride to Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry, Williams’ catalog evolved from February’s chart-topping cover of the 1920’s show tune “Love Sick Blues,” to November’s iconic original “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The latter’s release, as a B-side to “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” was still a month away when performed on this show, but as Williams explains to his radio audience, it’s performance on stage was already generating requests. It’s taken here a hair slower than on the single, and with the single’s fiddle solo omitted there’s more room for Williams and Don Helms’ pedal steel to draw out the song’s anguish.

As noted, each of the eight shows opens with Williams singing the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy,” followed by WSM announcer Grant Turner introducing Williams to sing one of his original songs. A commercial break, unfortunately not included here, led into a second Williams song, a second commercial break, a tune by fiddler Jerry Rivers, a sacred song, and the fiddle song “Sally Goodin’” to close things out. The repetition gets a bit tiresome by the eighth go-round, but the shows are broken into discrete tracks that allow you to choose whether to listen to the continuity of a program, or navigate past the intros and outros to pick out your favorite tracks.

Williams was in fine voice for both days of recording, and the live-in-the-studio setting brought out vital performances from this initial Nashville lineup of the Drifting Cowboys. Williams omits his earliest hits (“Move It On Over” and “Honky Tonkin’”) and the then-yet-to-be-released novelty “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” but features the rest of his hits to date, including 1948’s “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” and “A Mansion on the Hill,” and 1949’s “Lovesick Blues” and “Wedding Bells,” twice each, “Mind Your Own Business,” “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” “Lost Highway” and the upcoming “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” These are terrific renderings – in both performance and sound quality – that easily sit side-by-side with the better known singles. Williams’ performance catalog at this point also included the non-charting 1947 single “Pan American” and the non-charting B-sides “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind” and “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight.”

The sacred songs include the only known recording of Hazel and Grady Cole’s “The Tramp on the Street,” Pee Wee King’s “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and the originals “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” and “I Saw the Light.” On the latter, steel guitarist Don Helms and bassist Hillous Butram step up to the microphone to provide backing vocals. Williams’ wife Audrey sings a number on each of the first four programs, and while her solo slots – “I’m Telling You” and a cover of Doris Day’s then-current “(There’s a Bluebird) On Your Windowsill” – don’t evidence much talent, the duets “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “I Want to Live and Love” show off the chemistry she shared with her husband and her resolve to be heard.

These shows sat in the vault until the Spring of 1950, latching on to the fame Williams would generate over the next three years. Colin Escott takes a third swing at the liner notes for this material, having written the notes for Polygram’s and Time-Life’s earlier reissues, and tells the tale of the show and the show’s patent medicine sponsor, Hadacol. As with Joe Palmaccio’s restoration for Time-Life’s 2011 release, Michael Graves erases the sonic artifacts that plague the transcription discs, and reveals the high quality of the original recordings. Williams would record additional transcription programs in 1950 (Garden Spot) and 1951 (Mothers Best), but these 1949 sessions, caught at the start of his rocket ride to stardom, are as essential as any recordings in his catalog. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Mead: Close to Home

Monday, 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

Saturday, 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]

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

Tuesday, 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]

Jimbo Mathus: Incinerator

Thursday, 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]

The Delines: The Imperial (El Cortez)

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Country soul that was three years in the making, and well worth the wait

The old saw about having a lifetime to make your debut and twelve months to make the follow-up is a luxury that the Delines didn’t get to enjoy. Not because they were rushed back into the studio by a demanding record label, or suffered a lack of creative energy and desire to write and record a sophomore album. Instead, after touring their 2014 debut, Colfax, recording a summer single that organically blossomed into the extended EP, Scenic Sessions, and completing substantial work on their planned sophomore album, the band’s singer, Amy Boone (Damnations, TX) was struck by a car and sidelined by two broken legs. Now, multiple surgeries and three years after the interruption, they’ve completed an album whose deep, emotional atmosphere appears to have been infused by the collective doubt, hope, expectation and recovery that marked the waiting.

The album’s downbeat country soul bridges the 200 miles between Memphis and Nashville, with organ, horns and pedal steel each offering notes of solemnity and sadness. The spotlight, however, belongs to Boone’s intimate readings of Willy Vlautin’s extraordinary songs. Vlautin captures human moments whose revelations are often to be found deep inside a subtle emotion, thought or interaction. Boone renders these words with a quiet strength that is both introspective and outwardly aware of their profundity. Vlautin’s protagonists spin in downward spirals that might be infinite, if not for an encouraging whisper. The magnitude of emotional despair is shown in nearly imperceptible contrast with earlier times that were, if not exactly happy, less of a disaster.

Vlautin’s talent as a novelist is on display as his songs account for meter, verse, chorus and rhyme without being constrained by them. His stories unfold in both blink-of-the-eye details and jump-cut narratives. Vlautin’s world is a bleak place in which the naive abandon of “Eddie and Polly” metastasizes into addiction, destitution and disintegration, and the unrelenting bad breaks of “Holly the Hustle” beg for redemption that never comes. The plea of “Roll Back My Life” offers a flicker of perception, as does the admission of “He Don’t Burn for Me,” but in both cases, it’s unclear if recognition will lead to understanding, or if awareness will lead to action. Boone infuses the characters with quiet grit and soul, and the the band’s moody, often sparse backings drape her in atmosphere. Three years in the making, and well worth the wait. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Delines’ Home Page

Lefty Frizzell: An Article From Life – The Complete Recordings

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

The exquisite, final word on a country legend

Born in Texas, and raised in Arkansas, William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell took in the seminal influences of Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and others, and forged an original vocal style that impacted an entire generation of singers. His next-generation disciples included Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Roy Orbison, and his influence continues to reverberate today through the works of Brennen Leigh and many others. His 1950 debut topped the charts with both “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” and its flip, “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” and the hits that followed stretched into early 1953. But Frizzell was a mercurial artist, firing his manager and band in 1952, joining and quitting the Grand Ole Opry, and moving to Los Angeles, where he joined the Town Hall Party. His 1954 single “I Love You Mostly” would be his last Top 20 hit for four years, and though he’d move to Nashville and regain the top slot with 1964’s “Saginaw Michigan,” his health and success steadily declined until his death at the age of 47 in 1975.

Bear Family has pulled out all the stops to honor Frizzell’s legendary career, gathering 361 tracks on 20 CDs, including all of his singles (45s and 78s) and albums, demos and session material, and a wealth of newly discovered material. The discs are packaged in double digipaks, which are themselves housed in a 12-½” x 12-½” x 3” box that includes a massive 264-page hardcover book. This box set represents the third iteration of Bear Family’s archival work on Frizzell, having previously issued the 14-LP set His Life, His Music in 1984, and the updated 12-CD set Life’s Like Poetry in 1992. This is a superset of both earlier releases, and though a few scraps might still be hiding in a dusty vault, this is likely to be the definitive statement on Frizzell’s recording career. In addition to complete coverage of his 25-years of commercial releases, the demos, private recordings, radio airchecks and U.S. military program transcriptions stretch back into the 1940s. The set’s final eight discs feature Frizzell’s younger brother David reading his biography I Love You a Thousand Ways.

Discs 1 through 9 repeat the same commercial material as was originally offered on Life’s Like Poetry. Discs 10-12 include demos, radio airchecks and transcriptions that provide a rich picture of the artist in development. These latter recordings vary in quality, and some of the earliest material is rough in spots, but Frizzell’s voice always manages to emerge from the surface noise of acetates and metal parts. New to this box are two dozen full and partial demos and non-session recordings, including late-40s covers of Ernest Tubb (“I’ll Always Be Glad to Take You Back” and “I’ll Always Be Glad to Take You Back”), Jimmie Rodgers (“My Old Pal of Yesterday,” “Jimmie the Kid” and “California Blues”), Ernest Tubb (“Mean Mama Blues”), Hank Williams (“I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Last Night I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep” and “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight”), and 1950 band recordings of Frizzell originals “If You’re Ever Lonely Darling,” “I Love You A Thousand Ways” and “Lost Love Blues.” Of particular interest among the new tracks are three solo acoustic takes of “I Won’t Be Good For Nothin’” that show how Frizzell developed his approach to the song.

The transfers and mastering of the studio material highlight the microphone’s love for Frizzell’s voice. His presence is palpable sixty years after he first stood and sang these numbers, and his feel for a song’s tempo remains unerring, never rushing a lyric, but never dragging the beat. As described by Merle Haggard, Frizzell would “hold on to each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one.” Charles Wolfe’s biographical essay, updated and revised by Daniel Cooper and Kevin Coffey, pieces together Frizzell’s personal and recording history from a variety of sources. Frizzell was apparently not fond of being interviewed, and the authors augment the artist’s own memories with those of his family, friends, supporting musicians and colleagues. The book (weighing in at a somewhat unwieldy five pounds) is laced with archival photos, and supplemented by Richard Weize and Kevin Coffey’s detailed discography. This collection is the epitome of the Bear Family box set, overwhelming in its completeness, attention to detail and love for the artist. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Blue Yonder: Rough and Ready Heart

Monday, November 19th, 2018

Country, swing and honky-tonk from talented West Virginia trio

This West Virginia trio – singer/songwriter John Lilly, guitarist Robert Shafer and acoustic bassist Will Carter – make country music from another era. There are Western tones that suggest the Sons of the Pioneers, but Lilly and Carter’s harmonies are bluegrass brotherly, and Shafer’s picking ranges through swing, rockabilly, bluegrass and folk. Add in the playing of guests Russ Hicks on steel guitar and Tony Creasman on drums, and the group covers a lot of range with their original material. The album opens with Lilly on the side of the road, thumb out and wanderlust intact. His travel turns emotional, as he contemplates the scars that have toughened him and the memories that bind him steadfastly to the past. “Rough and Ready Heart” suggests he’s ready to soldier on, but his attachment to the past puts tomorrow on hold for “Lost in Yesterday.” It’s not until “Emerald Eyes” that Lilly finds his way back to the present, and with the clever barroom lesson of “You Can’t Get There From Here” he spies the exit. The album closes with the upbeat rockabilly “Green Light,” the rhythm section stoking the beat as Shafer shows off his flatpicking prowess. Sharp songwriting and instrumental virtuosity has made Blue Yonder a weekly favorite at the Bluegrass Kitchen, and their latest album brings it home. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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