Posts Tagged ‘Country’

Cliff Westfall: Baby You Win

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

Twangy throwback country with a clever, humorous edge

Native Kentuckian Cliff Westfall’s country songs harken back to the clever and funny writing of Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall. And though he’s relocated to New York City, he’s recruited like-minded country music players as his backing band, ensuring there’s plenty of twang behind his humor and wordplay. Westfall lists Chuck Berry as his favorite songwriter, and he exhibits the same sort of attention to detail in his lyrics, choosing his words in parallel service of story, meter and rhyme. The album opens with the honkytonk of “It Hurts Her to Hurt Me,” as Westfall tends to his romantic wounds with a self-delusional salve. He’s a relationship pragmatist, staring past criticism, content to be Mr. Right Now until Mr. Right comes along and he’s pushed out of the picture. The chugging “Off the Wagon” surveys a dysfunctional relationship whose blurry attraction wears off along with the booze and pills, and runs out with a lengthy, twangy instrumental.

Westfall’s protagonists have the self-awareness to know they’re playing the doormat. They expect to be left behind, and only occasionally think of their own feelings, as one realizes “more and more I love you less and less.” They suffer lies, wait for the other shoe to drop, and wallow in self-deception to avoid thinking about what they really believe to be inevitable. The romantic powerlessness and emotional resignation of the album’s lone cover, “Hangin’ On,” fits perfectly with the originals, and the use of pedal steel in place of the Gosdin Brothers’ acoustic guitar underscores the broken will of the lyrics. Bryce Goggin and Graham Norwood’s production is clean, but not so modern that it loses the spirits that inspire Westfall’s writing, and the assembled players offer up everything from honkytonk twang to the jazzy turn of “Sweet Tooth.” Fans of Rodney Crowell, Dwight Yoakam, Moot Davis, and the Derailers should take this out for a spin. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Cliff Westfall’s Home Page

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos: The Complete Capitol Singles – 1967-1970

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Stupendous second chapter of Buck Owens’ career at Capitol

Omnivore’s previous set on Owens’ groundbreaking Capitol singles is now joined by a companion volume that catalogs his expanding reach as an artist. The commercial dominance of his initial rise to fame – which included twenty-two Top 40 hits and thirteen consecutive chart toppers – was unlikely to be matched, and yet this second collection rises to the occasion, both commercially and artistically. Of the eighteen singles Owens released across these four years, all but two made the Top 20; of the two misses, “Christmas Shopping” charted #5 on the holiday list, and only the internationally-themed instrumental “Things I Saw Happening at the Fountain on the Plaza When I Was Visiting Rome or Amore” missed entirely. Fifteen of the A-sides reached the Top 10, and six topped the country chart.

More importantly, the late ‘60s found Owens branching out from twangy Bakersfield country with innovative pop touches. He opened 1967 with the back-to-back #1s “Sam’s Place” and “Your Tender Loving Care,” dipped to #2 with “It Takes People Like You (To Make People Like Me),” and climbed back to the top with 1968’s “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone.” He scored three more chart toppers in 1969 (the originals “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass” and “Tall Dark Stranger,” and a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”), and just missed the top spot with 1970’s “The Kansas City Song.” Owens joined Hee-Haw in 1969 and continued to chart throughout the 1970s, but with the passing of Don Rich in 1974, his interest in a music career quickly declined. After a pair of albums and a handful of mid-charting singles for Warner Brothers he basically retired from releasing music for more than a decade.

But in the mid-to-late ‘60s, Owens was still accelerating. As he and the Buckaroos had shown with their 1966 Carnegie Hall Concert album (and reaffirmed here with the 1969 live take of “Johnny B. Goode”), the group was one of the hottest bands in the land. The singles featured here include the talents or Don Rich, Doyle Holly, Tom Brumley and Willie Cantu, as well as later members Jerry Wiggins and Doyle Curtsinger, and numerous sidemen. Perhaps most startling is the inclusion of smooth backing vocals from the Jordanaires and the Nashville-based Anita Kerr Singers on several tracks, and strings are heard on both A-sides and flips, including “Big in Vegas.”

Owens authored a seemingly inexhaustible supply of great songs, and by the mid-60s he’d begun expanding beyond the classic Bakersfield Sound. The acoustic guitars of “It Takes People Like You” and “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone” weren’t unprecedented, but the songs’ moods, particularly in Owens’ vocals, were new. Owens love of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll is heard on “Christmas Shopping,” there’s fuzz guitar on the waltz-time “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” and Earl Poole Ball adds organ to the intro of “The Kansas City Song.” Rather than hoarding his best work for A-sides, Owens often complemented his hits with interesting flips, including the transfixed vocal of “That’s All Right With Me (If It’s All Right With You)” and the funereal “White Satin Bed.”

Owens found terrific chemistry with protege Susan Raye on several hits, including the Johnny & June-styled sass of “We’re Gonna Get Together,” the harpsichord-lined fairy tale “The Great White Horse,” and the terrifically stalwart B-side remake of Owens’ “Your Tender Loving Care.” Omnivore’s double-disc includes 18 singles (A’s and B’s), ten in mono and eight in stereo, mastered from original analog sources by Michael Graves at Osiris Studio. Scott B. Bomar’s liner notes are accompanied by detailed session notes, photos, and picture sleeve and label reproductions. This is a stupendous second chapter, showing Owens and the Buckaroos in full artistic and commercial flight. It’s every bit as essential as the first volume, and will leave fans eagerly anticipating the third and final Capitol chapter. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Buck Owens’ Home Page

Don Gibson: The Best Of The Hickory Records Years, 1970–1978

Saturday, May 5th, 2018

Don Gibson’s second wind on Hickory Records

By the time that Don Gibson landed at Hickory Records, he’d been scoring hits for more than a decade at RCA. 1958’s chart-topping “Oh Lonesome Me” kicked off a string of RCA hits that ran through the end of the 1960s, and continued at Hickory into the late-70s. His biggest Hickory singles, “Country Green,” “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” and “Touch the Morning,” included his third (and final) #1, and provided the commercial face of a solid catalog that’s seen surprisingly little reissue activity. Omnivore offers twenty-five well-selected singles and album tracks, covering original and cover material that ranges from the twangy “Don’t Take All Your Loving” to a soulful take on Mel & Tim’s “Starting All Over Again.”

Gibson is remarkably consistent as he brings soul to Joe South’s “Games People Play,” heartbreak to Bobby Bond’s “If You’re Goin’ Girl,” and compelling blues to Grady Martin’s “Snap Your Fingers” and Mickey Newbury’s “If You Ever Get to Houston (Look Me Down).” Producer Wesley Rose cannily framed Gibson’s voice in a number of different ways, without losing his identify as a singer or his connection to country music. Rose’s sound wasn’t as clean as that produced by Chet Atkins at RCA, but neither was it tained with the badly aging affectations of many 1970s sessions. The guitar and steel players, uncredited here, add terrific stutter and twang on many of the tracks.

Gibson’s songwriting remained strong throughout his tenure at Hickory, and though his biggest Hickory hits came from the pens of Eddy Raven and Gary S. Paxton, he wrote fine singles, B-sides and album tracks, including the effervescent love song “I’m All Wrapped Up in You,” the ballad “Pretending Everyday,” and the remorseful “Praying Hands.” Omnivore’s collections pulls together all of the charting singles that hit #29 or above, and includes tracks from each of Gibson’s Hickory albums. That leaves nearly a dozen lower-charting singles and a wealth of album material for Bear Family to extend its series of Gibson box sets; but as an introduction to Gibson’s second wind of fame, this is terrific! [©2018 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ: NRBQ

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The 1969 debut of a polyglot music legend

Originally released in 1969, this debut outlined the wide musical grasp and irreverent sensibility that would grow the band’s legend over the next 49 years. 49 years in which this initial explosion of creativity sat in the vault unreissued. 49 years in which either the group’s continuing activity diverted their attention from a reissue, or in which lawyers intermittently haggled over muddy contractual rights. Either way, Omnivore has finally liberated the album from its resting place and reissued the fourteen songs in a tri-fold slipcase with original front and back cover art, Donn Adams period liner notes, and contemporary notes by Jay Berman. Berman characterizes the band’s repertoire, even at this early point in their career, as including “nearly anything,” and the eclectic mix of covers and originals bears that out.

This first studio lineup included long-time members Terry Adams and Joey Spampinato (the latter then credited as Jody St. Nicholas), along with vocalist Frank Gadler, guitarist Steve Ferguson and drummer Tom Staley. The group stakes out the audacious corners of their musical omniverance with covers of Eddie Cochran’s rockabilly “C’mon Everybody,” Sun Ra’s avant garde jazz “Rocket Number 9,” Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s folk blues “C’mon If You’re Comin’” (which the group revisited on 1972’s Workshop), and a country soul arrangement of Bruce Channel’s 1962 chart topper, “Hey! Baby.” Few bands at the time would have even known this range of material, let alone find a way to make it fit together on an album.

The original material from Adams, Spaminato and Ferguson is equally ambitious. Adams mashes up trad jazz and rock ‘n’ roll for “Kentucky Slop,” boogies hard on “Mama Get Down Those Rock And Roll Shoes,” captures the melancholy of Carla Bley’s 1964 jazz instrumental “Ida Lupino” with original lyrics, and closes the album with the piano-led “Stay With Me.” Ferguson’s trio of originals include the pop and soul influences of “I Didn’t Know Myself,” the gospel rocker “Stomp” and the country, folk and gospel flavored “Fergie’s Prayer.” Spampinato offers the album’s most ebullient moment with “You Can’t Hide,” a title the band would revisit ten years later on Tiddlywinks.

The album’s collection of first takes (including the previously unreleased first take of “Stomp” substituting for the re-recorded version that appeared on the original vinyl) provides a snapshot of the band as they played live. The set list reflects the confluence of musical interests, knowledge and talent the band members brought to the group, and the performances have an all-in quality that made second takes superfluous. Whether or not the renditions were note-perfect (and they pretty much are), they were perfect expressions of the musical ethos that sustains the band to this day. It’s a shame that the originally released second take of “Stomp” wasn’t included as part of this reissue, but that’s a nit, given the historical and artistic riches that have been sprung from the vault. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

Juliana Hatfield: Sings Olivia Newton-John

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Charming and heartfelt tribute to Olivia Newton-John

Born in 1967, Juliana Hatfield was seven years old when Olivia Newton-John scored her first U.S. pop chart topper, “I Honestly Love You.” Newton-John scored again with the follow-up singles, “Have You Ever Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please,” and though she continued to chart adult contemporary, it took her three more years to climb back to the top of the pop chart with 1978’s John Travolta duet “You’re the One That I Want.” Hatfield, known for her work with Blake Babies, the Juliana Hatfield Three and solo has “never not loved Olivia Newton­-John,” and it shows in the endearing performances and song selection of this tribute album.

In addition to heartfelt interpretations of Newton-John icons that span 1974’s “I Honestly Love You” to 1981’s “Physical,” the song list includes several deep fan favorites. “Totally Hot,” which stalled out at #52 in 1979, is deftly recast as buzzing Suzi Quatro-styled glam rock, and the pop-country “Dancin’ Round and Round” is taken uptempo and backed by hard-charging guitar and drums. The album reaches an emotional peak with “Please Mr. Please,” as Hatfield pours every last drop of the emotion she must have felt as an eight-year-old bonding with her first artistic idol.

Hatfield has internalized these songs and their artist in a thousand bedroom and car singalongs, and filters them through the original artistry they helped inspire. The contentment of “Have You Never Been Mellow” retains its optimistic mid-70s introspection while being deepened by Hatfield’s additional decades of life experience, and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” could just as easily be Hatfield singing about Newton-John as it was Sandy singing about Danny. This is a treat for fans of both Newton-John and Hatfield, and the only thing missing are some Grease photo cards to stick inside your locker. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Juliana Hatfield’s Home Page

The Oak Ridge Boys: When I Sing For Him – The Complete Columbia Recordings & RCA Singles

Monday, April 16th, 2018

The pre- and post-MCA sides of the Oak Ridge Boys

Those who know the Oak Ridge Boys from the hit singles that began with 1977’s “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and ran through crossover icons “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue,” may be surprised to find the group’s Southern gospel roots stretch back to the 1940s. Starting out as Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers, they became the Oak Ridge Quartet, and then in the early ‘60s, the Oak Ridge Boys. The group’s best-known lineup came together in the early ‘70s when bass singer Richard Sterban and tenor Joe Bonsall joined mid-60s arrivals Duane Allen and William Lee Golden. It was this quartet that charted with Johnny Cash on the 1973 single “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup” and eventually expanded from gospel to country hit making.

By 1974 the group had moved from the Heart Warming gospel label to the secular Columbia where they recorded the trio of albums anthologized here: The Oak Ridge Boys, Sky High, and Old Fashioned, Down Home, Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Southern Style, Gospel Quartet Music. The self-titled Columbia debut cracked the top 40, but the remaining two albums, despite quality material and performances, failed to chart. The group’s Columbia singles fared no better, with the first six failing to chart, and the seventh, “Family Reunion,” barely scraping onto the charts at #83. A large part of the group’s problem seems to have been Columbia’s lack of service to gospel radio, but their stylistic range, which included gospel harmony, MOR ballads, country and soul diluted their identity as gospel singers without providing a ready hook for secular radio.

Which is a shame, because the singles and albums deserved an audience. The group’s debut single for Columbia, the Grammy-winning “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” could easily have fit country radio in 1973, but it was a year or two late to mingle with the God Rock pop hits of 1971-2. Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me” hasn’t the wasted soul of the original, but it was a canny pick for a cover, as was their non-charting take on Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The group turned soulful with Allen Toussaint’s widely covered “Freedom for the Stallion,” and the debut album’s “Give Me a Star” provides a powerful close to the debut Columbia album. Their sophomore effort opens with the album’s non-charting single “Rhythm Guitar,” featuring honky-tonk piano and a terrific bass vocal.

The opening verse of “Nobody Special” briefly shows off the quartet’s vocal blend in an a cappella arrangement that could have supported the entire track (or an album!). Porter Wagoner’s “When I Sing For Him” gave lead vocalist Duane Allen an opportunity to really soar, a performance so moving that Wagoner asked him to sing the song at his funeral, which he did in 2007. Beyond the album’s songs of praise, the group offers Christian life principles in “We Gotta Love One Another” and “Plant a Seed,” essaying the pitfalls of part-time faith. The closing “Mighty Fine” would have made a catchy second single, had Columbia been more interested in promoting the group. Disc one is filled out with six bonus tracks that include a pair of vault tracks from All Our Favorite Songs, the singles “Heaven Bound.” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” and the B-side “Look Away Mama.”

Disc two opens with the ten tracks of the group’s third Columbia album, and features a second collaboration with Johnny Cash on his original “No Earthly Good.” The non-charting single “Where the Soul Never Dies” and “Jesus Knows Who I Am” offer revival tent zest, but the album’s split between old-timey gospel, country-flavored numbers and middle-of-the-road ballads doesn’t quite live up to the collection’s home-spun title. As with the previous two albums, the breadth is admirable, but it plays more like a variety show than a group’s album. The final two Columbia singles, David Allan Coe’s “Family Reunion” and George Jones’ “All Our Favorite Songs” are included along with their B-sides.

The group moved from Columbia to Dot in 1977, then to Dot’s parent, ABC, and then to ABC’s parent MCA, minted the biggest hit albums and singles of their career. In 1990, with Steve Sanders having replaced William Lee Golden as the group’s baritone, the group signed with RCA and released Unstoppable and The Long Haul. Disc 2 is filled out with four RCA singles from this period, including a grandiose cover of Mann & Weil’s Brill Building classic “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” the country hit “Lucky Moon,” its bluesy B-side take on “Walking After Midnight” and the fine, but low-charting “Fall.” The set closes with a funky cover of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” drawn from Sounds of the Season.

The Columbia sides show the group branching out from their gospel roots, but not yet fully committing themselves to the country market. As Joe Bonsall opines in Joe Marchese’s detailed liner notes, “Those were the days when we rode the fence musically trying to appease everyone… Although some of the songs were really cool, we just couldn’t seem to gain any real traction.” This set provides bookends for the group’s hit years on MCA, showing how they expanded their material and style from gospel to pop, rock, country and soul without ever dropping the thread of faith. Their Columbia material didn’t produced the mainstream fame they’d find on MCA, but it opened their ears to the opportunity that lay just ahead. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

The Oak Ridge Boys’ Home Page

6 String Drag: High Hat

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Long-lost 1997 Americana swan song finally back in print

By the time 6 String Drag caught the attention of Steve Earle and his producing partner Ray Kennedy, the band’s initial run was nearly over. Although they’d pioneered their sound in the middle of the Americana movement, this 1997 sophomore release on Earle and Kennedy’s E-Squared label would be their last album of new material until 2015’s reunion, Roots Rock & Roll, and the recent follow-up, Top of the World. With the band back in action, the time was right for a remaster and reissue of this classic, on CD, digital download, and for the first time ever, vinyl. The album finds vocalist Kenny Roby and the band stretching out across a variety of American sounds, including country, rock, southern boogie, rockabilly, bluegrass, trad jazz, soul and gospel, exploring the rootsy polyglot ground tilled by NRBQ, Rockpile and others. “Driven Man” has the meter and wordiness of an Elvis Costello song, and the addition of horns on several tracks gives the album a fuller sound than the group’s self-titled debut. The group’s abbreviated first life temporarily cut short a talented musical collective, but more lastingly seems to have consigned this shining moment to undeserved obscurity. Hopefully this 2018 reissue, augmented with a previously unreleased cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Lorene,” will restore the album to its rightful place in the Americana canon, and point new listeners to the group’s renewed lineup. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

6 String Drag’s Home Page

Laura Benitez and the Heartache: With All Its Thorns

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

An album of country heartache and grief

Benitez’s 2014 debut, Heartless Woman, was a breath of fresh country air. Though she favored a classic sound laced with pedal steel and twangy electric guitar, her lyrics picked up and modernized the empowered themes of Tammy Wynette and other breakthrough women of country. She opens her third album with a twangy, accordion-lined two-step that admits that her efforts to sustain a failed relationship have only produced a broken heart and the scar of self realization. She looks forward to fondly looking back with the expectant “Our Remember When,” but when those memories finally arrive, they turn out to be the bitter pills of “Easier Things to Do” and the murderous end of “In Red.”

Guitarist Bob Spector lays down a fetching acoustic solo and accordionist Billy Wilson adds atmosphere as the wavering bilingual vocal of “Almost the Right One/Casi mi Cielo” offers the intensity of Joan Baez and the heartbroken longing of Linda Ronstadt. She sings of cheating lovers and endless romantic disappointment, yet remains optimistic and surprisingly trusting as she revels in the relationship of “The Fool I Am Right Now.” She’s often willing to take what she can get, and rather than growing embittered when what she can get isn’t enough, she finally takes off on the album closing “Nora Went Down the Mountain.” As throughout the album, the interplay of twangy electric guitar, steel and fiddle is perfectly balanced against Benitez’s vocal.

The album’s biggest heartache and most gripping moment is its memorial to the victims of the harrowing 2016 Ghostship fire. Benitez flashes the outlines of the horrific event and laments the emotional aftermath of those missing the missing. A strummed guitar, droning low notes and Steve Kallai’s mournful violin underline the grief that grew with each addition to the list of those caught in the conflagration. Four years on from Heartless Woman, Benitez’s band is tighter and her voice has found a deeper pocket in the mix. Like a moth circling a flame, she’s drawn to the glow of love, even as it singes her romantic wings, and that’s good news for fans of country music, as she delivers a strong album of original, twangy heartbreak – thorns and all. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Laura Benitez and the Heartbreak’s Home Page

Janiva Magness: Love Is an Army

Friday, March 16th, 2018

Award-winning blues soul singer explores wider roots

Janiva Magness had an artistic coming out with her self-penned 2014 album, Original. Though she’d dabbled in songwriting before, the album marked a turn from interpreter of other people’s stories to essayist of her firsthand emotions. She continues that direction with her latest, co-writing four of the album’s twelve tracks, and selecting material from collaborator and producer Dave Darling, as well as Paul Thorn and others. She also welcomes several guests to the album, including vocalist Delbert McClinton on “What I Could Do,” harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite on “Hammer,” and most surprisingly, Poco pedal steel player Rusty Young on the shuffle “On and On.” The latter, taken with Doug Livingston’s dobro on the Western-tinged “Down Below,” shows off the range of roots Magness has been exploring.

The album opens on an emotionally low note of romantic dissolution, but Magness doesn’t stay down for long. She admits her faults, pines, lauds the resolve needed to power through heartbreak, and continues to leap forward with a spirit whose optimism isn’t grounded by past falls. When knocked to the canvas, she picks herself up before the bell, and when serving as the cornerman, she provides unwavering support to those she loves. The 60s-styled soul of “What’s That Say About You” offers a moving message of community, but elsewhere she excoriates the divisions sewn by America’s leaders. The album closes with the gospel faith of “Some Kind of Love,” complementing the threads of Memphis soul and Nashville country that have inspired a winning display of songwriting and vocal versatility. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Janiva Magness’ Home Page

Doc Watson: Live at Club 47

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Newly discovered Doc Watson live set from 1963

At the time of this February 1963 appearance at Boston’s Club 47, Doc Watson was a regional country and pop performer, but not yet the international exponent of traditional folk music he’d soon become. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler had started Watson on the path to fame with home recordings issued by Folkways in the early ’60s, and as his renowned grew, he began performing for urban audiences in New York, Boston and other outposts of the folk revival. His career took off over the next year with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival and his debut record on Vanguard. The seeds of that success are all here, as Watson strums, picks and sings a widely drafted catalog of folk tunes, embellishing each with both the song’s history and his history with the song. Watson flat- and finger-picks guitar, plays the autoharp and harmonica, and entertains the audience with stories and stage patter throughout the set. This is a terrific document of a deeply talented musician on the cusp of turning his artistic mastery, encyclopedic knowledge and affable stage presence into long-lasting influence and stardom. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Doc Watson Fan Site