Posts Tagged ‘Western Swing’

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]

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]

Blue Yonder’s Home Page

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Live From Ebbets Field

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Live from the Denver ozone in 1973

For many rock listeners, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s 1971 debut, Lost in the Ozone, was a taste-expanding experience. The group’s catalog of country, western swing, boogie-woogie, jump blues and rockabilly was broader than the country excursions of 1960s rock bands like the Byrds, and though others – notably NRBQ – blended multiple genres, the Airmen’s cover of “Hot Rod Lincoln” turned commercial attention into a following. The band hit the road in 1973 in support of their third album, Country Casanova, with a new-used tour bus and ace steel player Bobby Black in tow. The tour schedule was apparently quite grueling, but produced superb shows, including this stop in Denver, Colorado.

The group’s core lineup – George “Commander Cody” Frayne, Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen, John Tichy, Lance Dickerson, Andy Stein and Bruce Barlow – had been steady since their debut, and the chemistry they’d developed in San Francisco Bay Area clubs is evident in this set. They weave together a handful of originals with a wealth of brilliantly selected covers, including sad truckin’ songs, rockin’ rave-ups, Cajun and swing dance numbers, novelty tunes and a cowboy closer. The stereo recording is well preserved, though there are major dropouts on “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “Diggy Liggy Lo,” and the live mix lets some of the instruments and vocals peak in the red.

The set features three tracks from Country Casanova, including the original “Rock That Boogie,” but skips the earlier hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The Commander gets a spotlight on Merle Travis’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” and the crowd seems quite pleased with the set and six song encore. The 1973 tour has now produced several albums, including the classic Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas and the more recent Tour From Hell. There are a few overlaps in the set lists, but the group’s huge repertoire provides eleven songs here that don’t appear on the other two. There’s a bit of stage banter to give you a feel for the 68-minute show; all that’s missing is the evening’s second set! [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Commander Cody’s Home Page

Wayne Hancock: Slingin’ Rhythm

Friday, November 25th, 2016

waynehancock_slinginrhythmThe king of juke joint swing swings the juke joint

Twenty years into his recording career, the most surprising thing about Wayne Hancock is the lack of surprise in his unwavering pursuit of hillbilly boogie. What might have looked like a faddish nod at the start of his career has evolved into the heart and soul of his artistry, transcending the nostalgia that connects him to Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson and others. His first album since 2013’s Ride is stocked with swinging original material, sublimely selected covers of Merle Travis’ “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and Pee Wee King’s (by way of Hank Williams) “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and steel player Rose Sinclair’s instrumental showcase “Over Easy.”

Hancock is front and center, but he gives his band (Sinclair, electric guitarists Bart Weinberg and Greg Harkins, bassist Samuel “Huck” Johnson and producer Lloyd Maines on dobro) room to stretch out and solo. You probably won’t even notice the lack of a drummer until someone points it out. Hancock writes of a working musician’s fortitude, the toll it takes on off-stage life, and the rewards it pays. Messy homes give way to mistreating and long-gone mates, with “Divorce Me C.O.D.” taunting a soon-to-be ex and the original “Wear Out Your Welcome” kicking the problem to the curb. The few moments of respite include the apologetic “Two String Boogie” and the sweet invitation “Love You Always.”

There’s a conversational looseness to the sessions, with longer songs, such as “Dog Day Blues,” designed to stoke improvisation that suggests the jazz side of Western Swing. The players are up to the task as the rhythm section vamps, the guitarists take their turns in the spotlight and Hancock picks his spot to return to the mic. “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine” closes the set, reframing the album’s travails with the sympathetic observation that someone, somewhere always has it worse. And in Hancock’s case, a lot worse, since he’s found the thing he loves the most – juke joint swing – and carries it with him everywhere. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Wayne Hancock’s Home Page

Bill Kirchen: Seeds and Stems

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

BillKirchen_SeedsAndStemsAce dieselbilly singer-guitarist revisits highlights from his 45 year career

Bill Kirchen’s latest album provides a studio snapshot of his recent UK tour, highlighting much loved songs from the Commander Cody catalog and Kirchin’s solo years. Waxed quickly with his road band in between live dates, the set feels contemporary rather than anthological, and the performances fit together in a way that the original recordings could never be expected to. Kirchen’s originals have stood both the test of time and reinterpretation: the hard-luck “Semi-Truck,” the Merle Haggard-styled “Mama Hated Diesels” and the futuristic “Truck Stop at the End of the World” still pack their original punch, while the Cajun-flavored dieselbilly burner “Womb to the Tomb” is slowed here into a fetching waltz. Kirchen also makes great use of others’ songs, including an appropriately pitiful rendition of the title tune, a thoughtful reading of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry,” and a signature performance of Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Kirchen remains a standard bearer for a seamless blend of rock ‘n’ roll, country, boogie-woogie and western swing, and his catalog grows more burnished with each passing year. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Bill Kirchen’s Home Page

Hot Club of Cowtown: Rendezvous in Rhythm

Monday, June 10th, 2013

HotClubOfCowtown_RendezvousInRhythm

Austin swing trio pays tribute to their gypsy-jazz roots

Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown has been mixing Western Swing and Gypsy Jazz since their inception in 1997. This lineup solidified in 2000, and though they split briefly in 2005, their careers continued to intertwine even as they explored separate pursuits. Reuniting in 2008, the band picked up where they left off, mixing covers and originals, and continuing to grow more adept at both writing their own material and interpreting that of others. In 2011 they paid tribute to half their roots with the Bob Wills tribute, What Makes Bob Holler, and their latest follows up with a salute to the other half, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France.

The fourteen tracks focus on popular songs, show tunes and folk melodies that became jazz standards in 1930s Paris. The selections include the evergreens “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Crazy Rhythm,” and “If I Had You” (accidentally attributed as Irving Berlin’s like-titled composition), as well as a driving take on Reinhardt and Grappelli’s “Minor Swing” and several lesser-known tunes. The group displays their virtuosity both individually and as a trio, breaking out for solos and effortlessly weaving back together into tight improvisations. Elana James and Whit Smith each sing charmingly, Smith with more of a period style, but they also step into the spotlight with their fiddle and guitar to voice instrumental versions of “Dark Eyes,” “I’m Confessin'” and “Sunshine of Your Smile.”

The set focuses primarily on songs written in the 1920 and 30s, but reaches back to the early twentieth century for “Melancholy Baby” (reportedly first sung in public by William Frawley, later of I Love Lucy fame) and the British “Sunshine of Your Smile.” The song list also pulls in Reinhardt’s 1947 instrumental “Douce Ambiance” and Frank Loesser’s even more recent, 1948 that is, “Slow Boat to China.” It’s nice to hear the band indulge their jazz roots, particularly in this live acoustic setting; but the earthier spark of their western repertoire has always given their standards a kick, and is missed, even as their continental sounds enchant. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Hot Club of Cowtown’s Home Page

Wayne Hancock: Ride

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

WayneHancock_RideJuke-joint swing, twangy honky-tonk and hot rock ‘n’ roll

Wayne Hancock’s been making great albums since he introduced himself with 1995’s Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. His vocal similarity to Hank Sr. hasn’t abated a bit in the subsequent eighteen years, nor has his fealty to the basic elements of Williams’ brand of twangy honky-tonk and haunted sorrow. But Hancock is more a man out of time than a throwback, and though his music takes on a nostalgic tint amidst Nashville’s contemporary style, he makes the case that the sounds he champions are timeless. He sparks terrific performances from his guitarists (Eddie Biebel, Tjarko Jeen and Bob Stafford), steel player (Eddie Rivers) and bassist (Zack Sapunor), and he sounds happy to be singing,l even when he’s singing the blues.

Hancock’s spent the past few years touring, riding his Harley and getting divorced. The latter has turned his music into an essential salve, and though he sings “it’s best to be alone than be in love,” he’s more likely to pine than actually swear off romance. The album opens at highway speed as Hancock tries to outrun his heartache with an open road, a full throttle and dueling electric guitar solos. He’s soon again singing the blues, low-down and alone, but the tears in his voice can’t disguise the pleasure he gains from vocalizing his troubles, a pleasure shared with anyone who gives this album a spin. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Wayne Hancock’s Home Page

Marley’s Ghost: Jubliee

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Twenty-five years on, Marley’s Ghost is still digging up roots

After twenty-five years together, there’s nothing tremendously surprising about this quintet’s tenth album, but the ease with which they craft country, soul, swing and bluegrass remains terrifically engaging. Recorded in Nashville with Cowboy Jack Clement in the producer’s chair, there’s plenty of tight harmonizing, some rapid finger work and guest appearances by Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and John Prine. The song list combines five originals with eight covers, including finely selected songs from Kris Kristofferson, Katy Moffatt & Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Levon Helm and Bobby & Shirley Womack. The latter’s “It’s All Over Now,” originally recorded by its author as funky, New Orleans-tinged R&B, and famously covered by the Rolling Stones, is winningly arranged here with the twang and harmony of Old Crow Medicine Show. Butch Hancock’s “If You Were a Bluebird” and John Prine’s scornful “Unwed Fathers” (the latter with Harris adding her vocal to Dan Wheetman’s) are especially moving, and the original “South for a Change” offers western swing piano, guitar, steel and fiddle. Like the Band and NRBQ, Marley’s Ghost is an eclectic outfit with deep country roots; the tether gives their catalog continuity and the variety keeps their albums fresh. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Marley’s Ghost’s Home Page

Willie Nelson: Heroes

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

New songs, western swing classics and contemporary pop covers

Willie Nelson spent nearly two decades with Columbia, starting with his 1975 breakthrough (and first chart topper), Red Headed Stranger. He bounced around a number of majors and indies through the ‘90s and ‘00s, and now returns to the Sony fold via the company’s Legacy division, an imprint known more for its vast array of catalog reissues than for new music. But as a heritage artist, it’s a good fit, as Nelson revisits material from his catalog, chestnuts from the ‘30s and ‘40s, covers of recent pop songs, and new titles from his pen and that of his son, Lukas. The results are vital, and surprisingly coherent, if perhaps not always tightly focused. Covers of Pearl Jam (“Just Breathe”) and Coldplay (“The Scientist”) intermingle with Western Swing (“My Home in San Antone” and a terrifically jazzy “My Window Faces South”), ‘40s weepers (“Cold War with You”), and newly written originals.

The album’s guests include Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, and in a bit of stunt-casting, Snoop Dogg. Nelson’s voice is more lined with frailty than in his prime, but his idiosyncratic phrasing plays well with the cracks in his tone. He’s joined by his son Lukas on eight of the album’s tracks, which is a bit much of the junior Nelson’s higher, more nasal voice. More impressive are Lukas Nelson’s original songs, including the father-son duet “No Place to Fly” and the painful memories continually resurfacing in “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her.” The elder Nelson’s two new originals include the honky-tonk “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and the western gospel “Come on Back Jesus,” each describing an element of Willie’s faith. Nelson’s still raising hell, albeit in a quieter, more personal way, and drawing on more than fifty years of writing and singing, his music is aging gracefully. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Willie Nelson’s Home Page

Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (Legacy Edition)

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Elvis caps his remarkable comeback

Recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, Elvis Country was the culmination of a remarkable career resurrection. Starting with his 1968 Comeback Special, Elvis went on to reel off the brilliant From Elvis in Memphis (and the second-helping, Back in Memphis), the smartly constructed Vegas show of On Stage, and the studio/live That’s the Way It Is. He capped the run with this 1971 return to his roots, branding these country, gospel, blues, rockabilly and western swing covers with authority. Elvis showed his genius was rooted in his passion for music, which encompassed everything from the early rockabilly of Sanford Clark’s “The Fool” (written, surprisingly, by Lee Hazlewood) to the then-contemporary hit “Snowbird,” as well as classics from Ernest Tubb, Lester Flatt & Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran.

Recorded in RCA’s famed Studio B with Presley regulars James Burton, Charlie McCoy and Chip Young; the newly assembled studio hands included several players from the Muscle Shoals powerhouse, and the sessions were produced by Felton Jarvis. The arrangements ranged from loose, down home country jams to Vegas-styled orchestrations, and hearing the variety back-to-back, one quickly realizes how easily Elvis transcended the musical boundaries between his ‘50s roots and his glitzy ‘70s stage shows. Much like the 1969 American Studio sessions in Memphis, Elvis’ enthusiasm and musicality directs the assembled players and provokes top-notch performances; he leads the crew through a rocking workout of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and brings “Tomorrow Never Comes” to a volcanic climax.

The original album tracks are knit together with snippets of “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago,” a gimmick that some listeners find irritating, and which wreaks havoc on shuffle play; the complete take is included in the bonuses. An earlier CD reissue expanded the track count from twelve to eighteen, and this double-CD pushes the total to twenty-nine, including all six earlier bonuses. Disc two opens with the third-helping of the Nashville sessions, previously released as Love Letters from Elvis, and adds three more session bonuses: the singles “The Sound of Your Cry” and “Rags to Riches,” and the album track “Sylvia.” The broad range of material on Love Letters doesn’t always connect with Elvis’ legacy as tightly as that on Elvis Country, but Elvis is in fine voice on each track, and the assembled players are sharp.

Everything here’s been issued before, but pulling together session material previously spread across singles, albums, box sets and latter-day compilations has created a superb recounting of the last chapter of Elvis’ incredible comeback. Not included are the eight Nashville tracks released as part of That’s the Way It Is. A third-disc with banded versions of Elvis Country (minus the musical segues, that is) would have been a great addition, but even without it, this is an excellent expansion upon previous standalone reissues, and a terrific complement to the Legacy editions of From Elvis in Memphis and On Stage. The remastered discs (by Vic Anesini) are housed in a tri-fold digipack with a booklet that includes liner notes by Stuart Colman and terrific photos. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]